For Some Rappers On The Rise, Doing Time Is A Career Move

Updated: Aug 27 2004, 05:30am hrs
Last week, Shynes latest album, Godfather Buried Alive, debuted at No 3 on the Billboard 200 album chart, but he wont be touring or popping up on MTVs Total Request Live to promote his sophomore effort. Thats because Shyne is doing time at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY.

Normally, something as intrusive as a 10-year prison sentence would be a career killer, but in an industry where realness is as vital as blood, the rappers incarceration is helping him have a killer career.

When Shyne was convicted in 2001 on two counts of reckless assault, reckless endangerment, and gun possession for his role in a 1999 New York nightclub shooting (his former mentor, Sean P. Diddy Combs, was acquitted on all charges), many assumed the young rappers career was done. But these days prison is great publicity, especially for those trying to prove themselves as the hardest on the block or cellblock, in Shynes case.

For a man whose self-titled 2000 debut was utterly forgettable, Shyne, born Jamal Barrow, is suddenly one of the hottest rappers around. Its not because hes finally lived up to his early hype as the new Notorious B.I.G. or because Godfather Buried Alive is a great album its not. By virtue of his imprisonment, every word Shyne raps about is now instantly afforded the patina of truth, or realness.

Call it the 50 Cent factor.

As the New York hip-hop artist was set to break into the mainstream with his 2003 debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin, there was as much press about his having survived nine gunshots as about his abilities as a rapper or songwriter. Even before anyone heard Wanksta or In Da Club, the word was that 50 was the real thing, a true gangsta, and he had the scars to prove it. With this twisted logic, the only thing better than bullet wounds is someone releasing music from behind the wall. Shyne recorded most of this album during his trial, but he made the 50 Cent track For the Record while in jail thats why the song sounds as if hes rapping over a telephone line. In some silly circles, you cant get more real than that. (As a consequence, Shynes prison phone privileges have been suspended.)

Theres so much fakeness in hip-hop, so many gimmick rappers and character dudes, rapper Fat Joe recently told Vibe magazine. But Shyne is as real as any soldier.

For the moment, lets ignore Joey Cracks unfortunate use of the word soldier during wartime. Why is it Martin Scorsese can make classic movies such as Mean Streets and Goodfellas about the gangsters life, though hes never broken anyones legs or executed a hit on a rival, but rappers are branded as fake if they dare use their imagination instead of personal experience as fodder for their rhymes

By this standard, if Johnny Cash were to release Folsom Prison Blues today, his record company would probably play up the late, great singers brushes with the law. Cash spent the occasional night or two in jail, and though many assume otherwise, he never endured a lengthy stretch of hard time. Still, this never made his many songs about prison life, such as Starkville City Jail or San Quentin, any less devastating.

When singer-songwriter Lyfe opened for Angie Stone at Somerville Theatre earlier this year, he won over a testy crowd with only an acoustic guitar and his rough, affecting voice. There was a sense that he has known his share of difficult times, but he never alluded to the 10 years he served in an Ohio prison for arson. Now with his debut in stores, some are publicising his prison time as a hook. Even the albums title, Lyfe 268-192 refers to the number he wore as an inmate, and the first song being touted is Stick Up Kid.

Still, anyone expecting remorseless rough-hewn stories about mayhem will be disappointed since that isnt what Lyfe (his real name is Chester Jennings) is about. Although e doesnt shy away from his past, hes more concerned with the challenges of doing the right thing and the consequence of wrongdoing than with pretending to be the baddest man alive.

Fans and music industry types need to realise that realness isnt about wreaking havoc on everyone around you, or doing time without contrition. Its about having the courage and sense to realise theres nothing heroic or cool about wasting your life behind bars. Committing a crime and going to jail doesnt make anyone more real; it just makes them stupid.

RENEE GRAHAM / NY TIMES