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DVD's producer calls it a glimpse of reality
At first, the videos provided Rodney Bethea a unique way to promote his clothing line, he says.
His concept evolved into a series of DVDs that largely focused on a contest of greatness between two Baltimore men with a knack for spontaneously spewing rap music rhymes.
Along the way, the DVDs gained popularity on Baltimore's streets. NBA star Carmelo Anthony; his teammate Rodney White; Michael K. Williams, star of HBO's The Wire; and rapper Jadakiss made cameo appearances.
Still, the first eight videos made nary a splash in the mainstream media. It was video No. 9 that turned Bethea's video side-business into a controversy of congressional proportions.
In making the music-centered videos - which feature displays of drugs and guns - producer Bethea discovered that people on the streets had a lot to say. He planned to gather their rants and produce a DVD called EA All Day: The Hood DVD. (EA is short for Edmondson Avenue, a major West Baltimore street.)
But as Bethea taped, he hit a theme: Many people were angry about snitches, arrested criminals who informed authorities about the illegal activities of others.
He named the DVD Stop Snitching.
After two months on the street, the DVD made the news, with Anthony drawing much of the attention. The Denver Nuggets player is shown on the streets joking about putting a bounty on a local rapper.
Over the past three weeks, Bethea's work has been condemned by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, criticized by the mayor, hailed by police as criminal intelligence and sold on the Internet for $100.
"It's good people are talking about it, but I want people to understand what they're watching," he says.
To the 31-year-old West Baltimore barber, his infamous video is a documentary. It's a glimpse into a world politicians would rather most Baltimoreans didn't see. It's reality, Bethea says.
The two-hour video is a collection of scenes in which men display expensive watches, smoke marijuana, pull guns from their pockets and threaten the lives of criminals-turned-informants. Many of the rants are directed at Tyree Stewart, the alleged leader of a $50 million drug ring. Stewart was arrested last year and has been assisting authorities, federal court records show.
The video provided a visual for a crisis that has long gripped Baltimore's criminal justice system: witness intimidation.
"You can't blame the DVD for problems that existed before it came out," Bethea says.
Bethea says he doubts the video taught the Police Department much about West Baltimore that its detectives didn't know, but he agrees with the assertion that the video could haunt those who displayed guns, smoked drugs and threatened "snitches" or "rats."
"I didn't tell anybody what to say. They took it upon themselves," Bethea says.
Bethea grew up in a poor area of North Philadelphia, he says. He moved to Baltimore about 11 years ago to attend barber school. He lives in Randallstown and cuts hair in West Baltimore. He operates his One Love Underground shop on Frederick Avenue and drives a van emblazoned with the name. He sells One Love clothing, which he describes as "urban streetwear," and his DVDs. But most of his videos are circulated by people making copies, he says.
Bethea says he has stayed out of trouble since moving to Baltimore, and a local criminal record check confirms that. The only entry is an arrest in 1996 for being a fugitive from justice in Pennsylvania.
When Stop Snitching made the news this month, most of the attention fell on Anthony, the former Towson Catholic star and West Baltimore native.
Bethea says he does not know Anthony well, but the star appeared in two previous Bethea-produced DVDs.
In those videos, the 6-foot- 8-inch player is seen dancing on a street and hanging out in the back room at a night club. Some of the footage of Anthony was shot this summer at a basketball event in Richmond, Va.
Underground videos and recordings, such as the ones produced by Bethea, are increasingly common, says Uni Smith of the Web site www.rapindustry. com. Within the hip-hop music industry, there is a distinct respect for underground recordings that produce less profit and offer a harder edge than the sanitized versions played on the radio and television.
"The underground market, both music and DVDs, gives a voice to artists who have yet to be recognized by the music industry mainstream," says Gail Mitchell, a senior writer at Billboard magazine. "There are several underground scenes, depending on what part of the country you live in. Houston has its scene. New York has a scene. Atlanta has a scene. Baltimore has a scene."
As Bethea's work moves out of the so-called "underground," he says he wants to draw attention to West Baltimore.
Cummings, the outgoing chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, has said he will go anywhere to meet Anthony and discuss the video's negative messages. Bethea has a suggestion for the elected official and the dunking hero.
"How about if [Cummings] comes to West Baltimore?" Bethea says. "If I was Carmelo Anthony, I'd say, `Let's walk these streets. I'm going to show you why these people have this mentality. You have the power to put your hands on the solution.'"
Bethea also says Stop Snitching II is in production but won't say who will appear.
"You'll see," he says. "It's going to definitely address some heavy issues. You'll be surprised."