Sacramento police use hip-hop YouTube videos for gang arrests
Authorities say individuals appearing in rap vids reveal evolving gang culture
Al Henry Allen Sr. can thank Sacramento’s gangster-rap scene for putting him behind bars.
Well before a judge’s gavel condemned the 22-year-old Allen to 25 years to life in state prison earlier this summer, he and his friends mugged and swaggered their way through the music video for Lavish D’s “Project Nigga.”
The video was shot on location in Sacramento on June 5, 2010. A few hours later, Allen and his friends encountered rival gang members at a hotel party in Elk Grove. Words were exchanged, Allen drew a pistol and a young man died from a bullet to the back.
Through Lavish D’s video, which was uploaded to YouTube a week after the killing, police identified several of the suspects.
“It was kind of central to our investigation,” said Elk Grove Police Department Detective Kevin Papineau, the primary in the case.
It’s also the most prominent example yet of how Sacramento’s entrenched gang culture continues to evolve.
Authorities worry that homegrown rap videos disseminated through social media will escalate disputes between bitter rivals. In some cases, the viral taunts have already spilled blood on the streets.
At a gang seminar at the Sacramento Police Department in June, moderators played clips from a rap video they said prompted a violent reaction. A day after it hit YouTube, one of the men featured was shot dead in south Sacramento by those who took umbrage to the song’s message, they said.
Linking gangster rap to gangster crimes isn’t exactly new. Both 2 Live Crew and Snoop Dogg had to defend their lyrics during obscenity and murder trials in the 1990s, while the unsolved murders of the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur are widely speculated to be the results of a bitter East Coast-West Coast rap feud. But that all happened in a mostly predigital era.
“The explosion of [online] gang videos is a direct result of our society and our technology,” observed Sgt. Jamin Martinez, a member of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department’s gang unit.
The advent of social media and cheap recording technology has handed the mic off to a whole new generation of gangbangers and their set-repping rivals.
Online videos are even edging out traditional forms of antagonism, like flying colors and promoting one’s set through graffiti. It’s an entirely different kind of turf war—waged in a virtual world for hearts, minds and page clicks.
Lavish D’s “Project Nigga” is approaching 208,000 views. T-Nutty & Lil Face’s “City of the Colors” has racked up more than 56,000 views since hitting YouTube in October 2010. Alphie Blood, who released the Bloods anthem “I’m a Ridge Nigga” on YouTube in November 2012, has collected almost 22,000 views. Its thematic rival, the locally produced “Crippin,” by Lil Face and Gunplay, notched almost 68,000 views over the same time frame.
Authorities told SN&R these videos play direct roles in Sacramento’s gang culture.
“I can’t say if there’s an uptick in gang-related shootings that’s attributable to that,” said Supervising Deputy District Attorney Andrew Solomon, who heads up his office’s gang unit. “But it’s certainly a possibility, because these challenges and those disrespects are going out to a wider audience to be seen.”
The artists behind some of these local videos wouldn’t return interview requests or speak on the record. But authorities say the desire to get famous or die trying remains strong.
“A lot of my guys start out aspiring rap artists,” Sacramento police Detective Bob Quinn, who specializes in black street gangs, said at the seminar.
Martinez said that dream especially resonates with at-risk youth.
“A lot of the kids we deal with, especially the younger ones, their dreams are a little bit unrealistic,” he said. “You see one or two guys get out of your city or ’hood [by rapping], and you get 40 new kids who latch onto that.”
But not every artist who gets out stays out.
Bay Area rapper Mac Dre, née Andre Louis Hicks, had already done time in prison before he relocated to Sacramento in 2001 and rechristened his rap label Thizz Entertainment. But this new start lasted only three years. In November 2004, Hicks was shot while a passenger in a car on a Kansas City, Missouri, freeway. He died from his injuries at the age of 34.
The late rapper’s homicide remains unsolved, and his former label is now at the center of a federal Ecstasy-trafficking probe.
During a 2010 shooting at a Holiday Inn Express on W. Stockton Boulevard in Elk Grove, it was an innocent bystander who got caught between quarreling gangs.
D’Andre Blackwell was reportedly at the hotel that Saturday night for a high-school-graduation party. Papineau said there were multiple social gatherings at the hotel and the one across the street, many of them shared through social media. Investigators believe confusion over which parties were going on where might have led to the encounter between rival gang members. Papineau termed the confrontation something of a “coincidence.”
Blackwell, who was not in a gang, was on the first floor of the hotel with two friends who were affiliated with Gunz Up. The trio ran into several members of a rival crew called Gutta Boyz/Starz Up. Police say an argument ensued, leading Allen to pull a pistol and fire at Blackwell’s friends. “They were the primary targets,” Papineau said.
All three were running for the stairwell when the bullet struck Blackwell in the back. The mortally wounded 18-year-old managed to reach the third floor, where his graduation party was held, before collapsing in the hallway. The Valley High School grad died before medical personnel could arrive. “Wrong place at the wrong time,” Papineau said.
Hours earlier, several of the suspects recorded appearances in Lavish D’s “Project Nigga” music video. The track is fairly typical by Sactown’s gritty hip-hop standards. Over a frantic keyboard sample, the drawling rapper describes all the things he has and his enemies lack: women, cash and loads of street cred. But then, Lavish gets specific: “Don’t ever try to play me, dog. It is how I sound. Eleven hundred guns. Starz up, Gunz down.”
Authorities say those lyrics pinpoint the animosity between the two named cliques. “That really solidifies the motive for the shooting,” Papineau said.
On June 5, a jury convicted Allen of four felony counts, including second-degree murder and attempted murder.
The video also led to convictions of Jahmal Vance Dawson and Brandon Marcel “Shadow” Washington, for two counts each of assault with a firearm, resulting in eight-year prison sentences. A jury acquitted Marquess Travon “Whiteboy-Roach” Wilson of murder and attempted murder charges.
Three others associated with “Project Nigga” pled no contest to lesser felonies late last year. Isaevion Brian “Young-Zave” Anderson, who admitted belonging to a criminal street gang, is scheduled for sentencing on September 20.
Lavish went on to make more YouTube videos, including one he uploaded seven months after the shooting, called “King of the City.” Outtakes capture actual police detaining the rapper and members of his crew outside a Sacramento apartment complex.
In the video, a local officer razzes the artist, who also goes by the moniker Cash Money, quoting one of his lyrics back to him.
“Can we talk, Money? ‘’Cause I got a white bitch, and she’s a million-dollar bunny!’” he hollers.
Walking to his car to get a promotional magazine for one of the cops, Lavish addresses the camera: “See, they fans. They really fans. They want to be a part of this.”