Since he was sentenced to life in prison in 1980 for murder, Maxwell Melvins has dreamed of many things from the cramped interior of his cell: redemption for his crime, a night alone with his wife, a shorter prison sentence. He never dreamed he could win a Grammy Award.
But Melvins and 12 inmates from the Lifers Group, a prison rap band at the East New Jersey maximum security penitentiary, have been nominated for a Grammy in the long-form video category.
However, none of the singers will be on hand to receive the award if they win. Prison authorities won’t allow Melvins, the band’s creator who is named on the nomination, to take the 20-minute bus ride today to the ceremony at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, which awards the Grammy, turned down a request by Melvins to have the band’s longtime liaison, Lt. Alan August, or two recently paroled rappers accept the award on his behalf. The academy makes exceptions for nobody but the dead.
Inside the domed prison complex at Rahway, beyond half-a-dozen sliding gates, Melvins was chain-smoking as he paced the prison floor, anxiously orchestrating press interviews, a photo shoot and one of two daily prison tours by juvenile delinquents.
The Lifers Group is the brainchild of Melvins, president of the 15-year-old Lifers Group Juvenile Awareness Program. The program, which invites delinquents and high school students to a day in prison, is best known as the subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary “Scared Straight.”
The group wants to demythologize the romanticism of prison that often informs rap music. Members hope to so terrify potential young criminals with horrific tales of prison rape, physical brutality and mental torture that they will walk a straight line through life. Melvins saw rap music as the best way to convey that message, and last year he persuaded a Los Angeles record company to come to the prison to make a record and video.
The 30-minute video documentary, directed by Penelope Spheeris (“Wayne’s World”), who is also named on the nomination, provides abundant testimony of prison hardships and brutality. Shot in black-and-white 16-millimeter film and color video, it depicts a cramped and dispiriting universe, filled with tiled walls, fences, metal bars and men with huge muscles. The main tracks, “Real Deal” and “Belly of the Beast,” are gritty and unsparing. The lyrics, which are written by the inmates, deal in a direct and brutal way with issues like AIDS, murder, betrayal, prison rape, suicide and laundry detail.
In one of the more disturbing scenes in the video, Rahway corrections officer Michael Cook displays a slender five-inch shank, sheathed in a hand-carved wooden crucifix, and blandly remarks that such a blade was used to “pluck out” an inmate’s eye. The message, says the Lifers Group, is that prison is not “a piece of cake . . . just like a party,” as rapper Ice Cube described it in a song.
Each rapper from the Lifers Group has been jailed for serious offenses--armed robbery, kidnaping and murder--and many are repeat offenders. Knowledge Born Allah, 28, has spent more than half his life in prison and juvenile reformatories. He has been at Rahway since 1986, serving out a 10-year sentence for manslaughter. Allah, a member of the Five Percent Nation of Islam, said he accidentally knocked down his 69-year-old grandmother, Rose Esther Rouse, during a scuffle with his cousin over money and half an ounce of cocaine. She hit her head and died three weeks later.
His lyrics, like those of most of the youngest rappers in the band, deal with rape, fear of AIDS and the predatory nature of prison life.
The video and album have given the band a measure of fame. Melvins has received fan mail from as far away as Australia. He says one woman, a member of a drug crew in Canada who plotted murder to get out of the gang, wrote him that she changed her mind after seeing the video. But the Lifers Group’s notoriety has gotten mixed reactions from guards and other inmates. “Everything’s not peaches and cream here,” said Aziz, a member of the Lifers Group with more than 10 years at Rahway. “We are resented by some of the cops who think we’re getting too much attention.”
After months of getting the cold shoulder from rap bands and several record labels, Melvins persuaded Los Angeles record producer Dave Funken-Klein at Hollywood Records to take an interest in the project. Funken-Klein held a talent contest in the prison and brought in a camera crew and portable recording studio. The entire project was completed in three weeks.
Since last spring, the Lifers Group has sold more than 50,000 records. There are no plans to cut a new record and Melvins said the organization has yet to make a dime. The record company, he has been told by one of his three lawyers, has yet to recoup its $140,000 in production costs. If the video ultimately makes a profit, their proceeds will be channeled through the prison to fund Lifers Group’s projects, according to Melvins.