February 18, 2012

Rapper’s prison sentence hurts S.C.’s hip-hop scene

A little more than a year ago, South Carolina seemed primed to make an impact in hip-hop music.

A little more than a year ago, South Carolina seemed primed to make an impact in hip-hop music.

Its best hopes had faded by Thursday, when Darnell Rodriguez Mealing, widely known by his recording name Boss G, was sentenced to 17 years in federal prison.

Now, the state, which has struggled to make a mark in hop-hop, will have to wait for another star to emerge.

“I don’t think the S.C. rap scene has been the same since he got locked up,” said Randy Roper, who runs the hip-hop website Writer’s Block Media. “It’s unfortunate because he was on the verge of a breakthrough, and he was on the brink of doing something no other rapper from S.C. has been able to do, which is have the support of the streets and the industry tastemakers behind him, in a major way.”

Mealing pleaded guilty last fall in U.S. District Court to one count of distributing crack cocaine and one count of possession of a firearm. Judge Cameron McGowan Currie decided Mealing deserved a longer prison sentence than recommended because he had led a violent lifestyle, using assault rifles and his status in the Folk Nation gang to carry out drug deals.

That lifestyle, whether authentic or made up, is part of hip-hop’s brand, an outlaw brand that is not unique. Western music has its gunslingers, country its moonshiners and rock ‘n’ roll its druggies. All have lost stars to addictions, prison and too-early graves.

Jay-Z built his empire by rapping about his criminal past. Young Jeezy, T.I. and Gucci Mane, three of the most well-known Southern rappers, have regaled fans with tales of “the trap,” which is street code for a drug-pushing area. The fruits of drug peddling – cars, jewelry, women, respect – have been glamorized.

But not all of rap’s outlaw brand is real. Rick Ross, once a correctional officer in Florida and currently one of the most successful rap stars, fabricated his drug-dealing background.

The streets loved Boss G, a 27-year-old father of three, because, to use a hip-hop cliché, he kept it real. He had real stories to rap about. But his sentencing is a coda to what happens next.

“Boss G was really about that life and, sadly, when you’re really about that life, it catches up with you,” said S.C. native Lenard McKelvey, who, as Charlamagne Tha God, is now a co-host of “The Breakfast Club,” a top-rated morning show broadcast from New York. “Him being incarcerated puts S.C. hip-hop in a bad position because he was one of the very few who I thought could break on a national level.”

Operation Dark Knight

Mealing was arrested as part of a widespread operation between 2006 and 2009 in which federal agents used wiretaps to track drug dealers’ phone calls.

Operation Dark Knight, as it was called by federal agents, netted nearly 125 drug dealers, ranging from street-level sellers to Mexican suppliers. The case received national attention for its use of wiretaps and the way it showed Mexican cartels were expanding across the United States.

Mainstream rappers may rap about their connections – Ross’ most recent single is entitled “Off the Boat,” as if he sells boatloads of drugs – but it’s hard to find a keen observer of hip-hop who believes what rappers say.

Mealing was believable.

“It’s a sad situation. If you’re dealing with that life, if you’re going to come into the rap game, you’ve got to leave all that behind,” said Kevin Langston of Columbia, who performs as Akshun. “There’s no way you’re going to be able to dabble in the street and the industry.”

In May, Davyne Dantzler, once a prominent strip club owner, rapper and party promoter in Columbia, will publish his memoir, “From the Streets to Scripture.” He now makes contemporary gospel hip-hop, but in the book he says he once had connections to drug dealers.

“A lot of dope boys helped finance my career,” he said. “And I watched a lot of them go away.”

In the drug game, friends become foes – or witnesses for the prosecution.

Pearish Pretty, a high-level cocaine dealer who operated off North Main Street, once financed Mealing by paying for his studio time and new clothes. Pretty, already serving time in federal prison for his role in the drug operation, testified Thursday he sold cocaine to Mealing, who would cook it into crack and then sell it in the Crane Forest neighborhood off Monticello Road.

Prosecutors showed Boss G’s “Trappin’ 2 Da Max” video in court to illustrate how his music glorified drugs.

From the jail to prison

Timothy Harris Jr., the videographer who directed the video for “Hobby,” Boss G’s most infectious single, said he is making sure the young rappers he now is working with see what it is like out of town, out of the ’hood.

“It’s just to open their mind up so they see there’s something else out there,” said Harris, who goes by the stage name of 5Dollaz.

About Mealing, he said, “It set us back, and I lost a friend that I have to wait some-odd years to see.”

In July 2010, Boss G performed on the Colonial Life Arena stage. It looked like he was ready for a national stage. In September, Boss G was featured in “The South Carolina Rap,” a comedy video. His mainstream crossover potential was apparent.

As the judge announced his sentence, Mealing shook his bowed head. He looked at his supporters in the courtroom before he was led out, shackled by his hands and feet.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who is real or fake when your life is taken away,” Dantzler said.

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