Retired Crooks Behind The Books

by Intelligent Allah
April 2008

Ever wonder what motivated Vickie Stringer to sell $4.5 million worth of books in 14 months? Ever ponder how Shannon Holmes’ debut novel B-More Careful sold over 200,000 copies? The answer is the same driving force that fueled Wahida Clark to reach through the cell bars of a federal pen and snatch a spot on the Essence best sellers list: Prison. These authors are part of a growing number of street-smart men and women who have used their prison cells as offices to pen best selling novels and develop corporations to push these books into the hands of millions of readers worldwide.

What’s really ’hood? Fictional stories of sex, money, and murder that depict the harsh realities of inner-city life. These books serve as cautionary tales about engaging in crime. Chester Himes gave birth to the genre while serving an eight-year bid during the 1930s. Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim, two prisoners-turned-authors, pioneered the genre decades ago with books like Black Gangster and Pimp: The Story of My Life. Since the re-emergence of the genre in the late 1990s, many readers have referred to books like A Hustler’s Wife, Hood Legend, and Platinum Dolls as “hood books.” Some industry executives and media have dubbed them urban fiction, ghetto lit, hip hop fiction, and street lit. Whatever names one uses, it is clear that the genre of stickup kids, drug dealers, and money-hungry dime pieces is rooted in the ’hood.

“Who knows the streets, the game, and the lifestyle better than a true balla?” asks Money Boy Montana. The Washington Heights and Harlem native earned his name by flooding the streets with narcotics. Now, as the first male Latino to sign to Don Diva Presents/Hampstead Publishing, he plans to flood the streets with raw talent. Money Boy says, “To me, this was an opportunity to change my life. I come from the streets, so I converted my experiences and my energy as a hustler into literary fire. Writing is my medication. I need to write like a diabetic needs insulin.”

In any genre, what sets authentic stories apart from mere fables is the writer’s personal experience and relation to his or her work. John Grisham became a best selling author of over 16 courtroom dramas based on his experience as a lawyer. In an era of “Stop Snitching” t-shirts and rappers boasting of being shot, street credibility is a concept that trickled down from project rooftops, through iPod earplugs, and onto the pages of ’hood books.

But street credibility comes with a price—usually a casket or a cell. Although dead homies don’t make good storytellers, incarcerated Scarfaces are cooking up books like crack. Zach Tate, a Bronx native who has been on lock since 1991, had No Way Out and Lost and Turned Out published within two years. Without any promotional efforts, 47,000 copies of his books were sold. “People buy my books because they recognize the authenticity,” says Zach. “My pain and suffering is unleashed in those pages. The world I describe is filled with real people that go through real things, but are often overlooked. I’m writing from a cage, blindfolded with my hands tied, walking through a crowded minefield. No computer, no editorial staff, and no promotion. My work comes from the dirt.”

Some say that authors who tell semi-autobiographical tales from the ’hood have snatched a page from the rhyme books of rappers like Maino and Cormega, whose criminal lifestyles led them to prison, where they began rapping about the streets. This notion is part of a bigger picture of underprivileged youth using street smarts to pry their way into corporate America.

“Early in my incarceration I chose not to be limited by my circumstances, so I refocused my talents. After a decade in prison, I recognize that the streets are no longer an option. So I changed my game,” says Casino Mike, incarcerated author of 2 Sides 2 a Story, who has intimate ties to Hustle Hard Entertainment. Without distribution, the Bed-Stuy ex-hustler’s novel moved 1,000 copies the first week after it hit the streets of Brooklyn in April 2006.

The entrepreneurial spirit also runs through the veins of Zach Tate, who is shopping his screenplays for both of his books, and plans to venture into film directing and producing. A pair of incarcerated Harlem hustlers named Tha Twinz launched the clothing lines Fortune Hunters and Diamond Girl, before self-publishing their debut novel, Crime Pays? Baby Born, one-half of Tha Twinz, says, “A person who was really about his business and getting money in the streets carries that same mentality with him into prison and that hunger to provide for his family increases, because he is not able to conduct business as usual. Being in prison gives a person the chance to slow down, see the world from a different perspective, and become more creative. That’s how me and my brother came up with the idea to get into self-publishing.”

Some outlaws-turned-authors have a history of writing that predates their trips to the precinct. Casino Mike’s bio posted on lists his storytelling ability as a youth. Intelligent Allah, known as Intell, is a 31-year-old East New Yorker who was an aspiring rapper who dabbled in poetry before he hit Central Booking in 1994. He has since co-edited Wahida Clark’s national best seller Thug Matrimony, and is shopping his debut novel Brooklyn Born: Life In New York City’s Most Dangerous Borough. “I survived running the streets involved with guns, drugs, and robberies since I was thirteen, now I have over thirteen years in prison. So for people who didn’t experience that, they can see what the hardships are really like through my writing,” Intell says. “Writing is in my blood. Poems, ’hood books, love stories, plays, articles, legal writing, business plans, I do it all.”

The drive of convicted authors is unparalleled. F. Gee Heyward, an incarcerated author from the Boogie Down Bronx who penned Game Like Honey, says, “I’m more driven than a Ferrari. I go from handwriting my joints, to using a typewriter, to reading that fire over the phone just to get ’em put in manuscript form. Damn right I’m driven.” Author and publisher Relentless Aaron has the same drive. He wrote 30 books during a seven-year stint, returned home and self-published 11 of them before earning a six-figure deal with St. Martin’s Press.

The United States has over 2.2 million people incarcerated and over 600,000 return to society each year. Countless prisons have abandoned rehabilitative efforts, and many prisoners come home unemployable. But authors who were incarcerated are returning to the streets to peddle books on the same corners that they once pushed drugs. Not only are these retired crooks self-employed, but they are also symbols of change to youth that once idolized their lawless personas. Sources report that author and publisher Vickie Stringer served seven years in the federal prison before creating her company Triple Crown Publications—a name inspired by her old outlaw clique, Triple Crown Posse. She now pushes a BMW X5 down the road to success as the leading publisher of ’hood books, some of which are published in Spanish and other languages. She has also opened many doors for others with her nonfiction book, How To Succeed In The Publishing Game.

With countless authors publishing books from behind bars, like Joe Black’s Street Team, Vincint “V.I.” Warren’s Hoe Zetta, and Seth Ferranti’s Prison Stories, the streets’ hunger for raw stories by ’hood experts is being fulfilled. As stories written by retired crooks continue flying off of bookshelves and rising up best seller lists, readers are receiving a clear picture of what’s really ’hood.

Jail Cells and Book Sales
Here is a glance at some incarcerated authors and ex-cons, along with a list of published books they wrote about the street-life they lived:

Antione “Inch” Thomas: Unwilling to Suffer
Asante Khahari: Homo Thug, The Birth of a Black Criminal
Casino Mike: 2 Sides 2 a Story
C-Murder: Death Around the Corner
Chester Himes: Cotton Comes to Harlem
Donald Goines: Black Gangster, Daddy Cool
Eric Myrieckes: Street Dreams
F. Gee Heyward: Game Like Honey
Iceberg Slim: Death Wish, Trick Baby
Kane & Abel: Diva, Eyes of a Killer
Kwame Teague: The “Dutch” Trilogy, The Adventures of Ghetto Sam
Isadore Johnson: Drug Dealer Part 1 & 2
J.M. Benjamin: My Manz and ’Em, Down in the Dirty
Joe Black: Street Team, Squeeze
Paul Johnson: Blood Money
Relentless Aaron: Push, The Last Kingpin
Seth “Soul Man” Ferranti: Prison Stories
Shannon Holmes: B-More Careful, Dirty Game
Tha Twinz: Crime Pays
Vickie Stringer: Let That Be The Reason, Dirty Red
Victor L. Martin: Hood Legend
Vincint “V.I.” Warren: Hoe-Zetta
Wahida Clark: Every Thug Needs A Lady, Payback is a Mutha
Zach Tate: No Way Out, Lost and Turned Out

Intelligent Allah is a copywriter for Cinobe Publishing and East Medina Entertainment. His writing has been published in books such as Classroom Calypso, The Five Percenter Newspaper and countless newsletters.

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