During a video shoot for Harlem hip-hoppers the Diplomats’ single “Get Down/The Best Out,” staged recently at a sprawling, abandoned lot in Bed-Stuy, more than a dozen cameras circled around the nine-strong crew who were dressed in matching black and red “Stop Snitching” T-shirts. But no more than a couple of the cameras were actually shooting footage for the video itself; the rest were DV-toting amateurs capturing the action for “DVD magazines.”
The Dipset set in Brooklyn is a testament to the growing popularity of the new medium, which, with its dozens of interviews packed into a single DVD, is really more like a compilation of mini-documentaries. Unsurprisingly, the spliced-up nature of DVD magazines—all of which (for now) are homemade and released straight to the street—has brought comparisons to hip-hop’s mixtape scene. One landmark moment occurred late this summer when Smack—which is so popular that it is releasing three successive installments by year’s end—signed a distribution deal with independent label Koch, a first for a DVD magazine. Shonte Armstrong, one of Smack‘s producers, attributes Koch’s interest— and the mushrooming scene itself—to DVD magazines’ unpretentious, anti-bling approach to hip-hop. “When you see rap artists on VH1 and MTV they’re dressed up in a million dollars’ worth of clothing, they’re iced out and blinging all over the camera,” Armstrong explains, “so it’s like ‘How do I relate to that?’ With the DVDs, they’re being themselves. People are smoking and drinking—and sometimes they’ve even got their guns out. And our interviews end up happening anywhere, like on a staircase in the projects.”
The street-centric approach of some DVDs is proving legally problematic, however: In mid October, 15 men who appeared in a DVD shot in Charleston, South Carolina’s housing projects were hit with charges ranging from trespassing to murder. In the DVD, the men allegedly brandished weapons, flashed thick stacks of cash, and smoked crack; the investigation has been so fruitful that police expect to make several more arrests, and most ominously, the feds are now assisting Charleston cops in reviewing the DVD. In a recent Boston Herald article about the indictment of Source magazine co-owner Ray “Benzino” Scott on tax evasion charges, the author noted that Scott starred in a DVD called Benzino: Arch Nemesis. And on October 28, Atlanta’s Black Mafia Family, a crime network that starred in at least three DVDs this summer, were indicted by the feds on drug trafficking charges; it isn’t clear whether law enforcement watched any of those DVDs, but it’s a safe bet that they’ll be introduced as evidence once BMF go to trial. Increased law enforcement scrutiny of the DVD scene will likely have the greatest adverse effect not on small-time hustlers but on hip-hop’s marquee names, who often let down their guard a little bit too much (or strain to prove their street cred) when being interviewed; in Smack‘s recent issue featuring Young Jeezy, “The Snowman” appears on-screen waving an automatic weapon with a group of assault-rifle-brandishing men whose faces are covered menacingly with bandannas.
“The DVD magazine is the new mixtape,” proclaims Albie Montgomery, production director of a hip-hop-entrepreneur-focused DVD series called Cheddar: Money and Hip-Hop. “There is no better promotion out there for an artist to have.” Lower East Side rapper Tru Life—recently signed by Jay-Z to Roc La Familia/Def Jam after garnering buzz on the DVD scene—seems to agree: He proclaims himself “the king of the DVDs.” Unlike the mixtape, though, DVD magazines are not always hip-hop-centric: Crime families share space with rappers like D-Block and Dipset’s Juelz Santana. Titles of DVD magazines— Smack, Blow!, and Drugs on Music— reflect their gritty subject matter.
Indeed, while it is difficult to trace the evolution of the DVD magazine (most have been in business for barely a year and have only recently begun releasing product on a regular basis), there is no doubt that the crossover moment for the medium is 2004’s now infamous Stop Snitching DVD, which featured Baltimore’s hustling A-list along with NBA superstar Carmelo Anthony. The DVD—in which street players threatened police informants—became so popular that it helped make “Stop Snitching” T-shirts ubiquitous in inner-city neigh-borhoods and even spawned boycotts in Boston and Philadelphia, the arrest of a handful of its participants, and, most interestingly, a counter-DVD of sorts from the Baltimore police called Keep Talking.
Perhaps the greatest driver behind the DVD trend is the explosion of
TV culture from flat-screen home-entertainment systems to SUVs tricked out with screens in the headrests. “People are more used to watching things these days, much more than they are reading,” says Dedan Kasimu of Blow!. “I hate to say it, but people are lazy.” Kasimu says it’s not uncommon for him to be stopped at a red light and turn to the car next to him only to see Blow! playing in a headrest.
From Cheddar Volume III: Behind the scenes of the Strip Club set
Like mixtapes in their heyday, DVD magazines are doing serious numbers. But as with mixtapes—which exist in a legal gray area because of unlicensed music and, as such, are labeled “promotional material”—the scene’s players are loathe to release precise sales statistics. Montgomery of Cheddar boasts of “100,000 viewers” while Blow!‘s Kasimu claims that the magazine has a “circulation of 50,000” (though “circulation” implies a subscription-based distribution system, Kasimu notes that Blow! is sold purely through retail outlets like FYE, Sam Goody, and mom-and-pop stores). Perhaps because Smack is the first to go legit, only Armstrong is specific about sales—she says that since the company’s founding in 2002, about 450,000 copies have been sold over its 10 “issues.”
Such impact is fairly astounding, given that everything from cover artwork to editing to distribution is handled by principals at the DVD magazines themselves. “Nothing is outsourced,” declares Armstrong. Indeed, the DIY nature explains the increasingly crowded marketplace. “Everyone wants to get involved,” Armstrong says, “which is good because I like competition. But some people think that this is easy—you just go out there and get some footage and burn it onto a DVD.” The scene, unsurprisingly, is in danger of becoming oversaturated: On popular website mixunit.com, DVDs like Hip-Hop Honeys: Las Vegas Edition are fast encroaching on a bestsellers list usually dominated by Bun B, G-Unit, and Young Jeezy mixtapes.
Already, some in the DVD world are looking for fresh angles. With DVDs depicting re-enactments of the heyday of legendary hustlers such as Alpo becoming passé and the chronicling of criminals active in the streets turning legally troublesome, imprisoned street legends themselves are being sought out by DVD producers. Snake Charmer Productions, a crew of producers that includes Tupac’s former manager Freddie “Nickels” Moore, is currently putting together a disc called From Queens Come Kings, about kingpins Lorenzo “Fat Cat” Nichols and Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff. The DVD will include first-of-its-kind interviews with McGriff’s Supreme Team lieutenant “Bimmie” and Nichols’s strongman Howard “Pappy” Mason. “While all other DVDs about the Fat Cat era feature re-enactments,” says a spokesperson for Snake Charmer Productions, “we’re going to feature never-before-seen footage of the Supreme Team and Fat Cat from the ’80s, as well as interviews with the players themselves. The bar for street DVDs will permanently be raised.”