Pride vs. Power

In the last week of September 2006, an odd thing happened: A Phoenix rap group managed to light up controversy all over the nation via an article that appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times by staff writer Chris Lee.

The article, titled "Rap's Captive Audience," was about marketing rap music to prisoners, but it highlighted the Phoenix group Woodpile, a trio of white ex-cons with shaved heads, saying in the subhead that they were "musicians with a white power message." The first sentence called them "skin-headed," and later referred to them as a "white-power group."

I was immediately confused, because the article also mentioned that Woodpile was signed to West Coast Mafia Records, owned by two black guys, notorious gangsta rapper C-Bo and his partner T-Po. It also said that the members of Woodpile — Diesoul Ether Bunny, Crisis, and Critical — were for "'white pride,' not white supremacy."

After extensive interviews with the members of Woodpile; the group's DJ, King Trick (who's black); West Coast Mafia co-owner T-Po; a staff reporter for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report magazine, which tracks hate groups; and an e-mail exchange with the author of the L.A. Times story, I'm confident that Woodpile was misrepresented. These guys are white, and not afraid to say they're proud of it, but there's not a racist element to the group at all.

Though they partially got the name Woodpile from the fact that in prison, white dudes are called "woods" — short for "peckerwood," a pejorative that originally referred to poor white folks much like "redneck" does — and they celebrate the term in tracks like "I'm a Wood" and "For the Woods" (off their new album, The Streets Will Never Be the Same), the article doesn't mention that Crisis and Critical, who are brothers, actually have the last name Wood. Critical has "WOOD FAMILY" tattooed down his arms, ink that he's had since before the group came together.

The L.A. Times story was widely circulated on Internet list-servs that track hate group activities, and made it to the desk of Brentin Mock, a staff writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report. It didn't compute for him, either.

"First and foremost, they're on West Coast Mafia Records. Bottom line — even if it's dollars and you can rationalize something like that, I can't see a black gangsta guy putting a white supremacist rapper or music artist on his label," Mock told me after he'd looked into Woodpile. "I can't see a white supremacist wanting to be subjugated to being on a black guy's record label. It kind of subverts the racial hierarchy philosophy of white supremacists. I couldn't even find this 'proud to be white' flavor. There's nothing wrong, criminal, or anything even racist to say 'we're white and we're proud.'"

Other than shout-outs to fellow "woods," I found no references on their record to racism, and after getting to know the members, I think Woodpile's message is the opposite of what the L.A. Times construed it to be — they want to bring hardcore white guys to rap music, rather than alienating anyone of any race.

The group's DJ is King Trick, who's been in hip-hop for more than half of his 42 years, and is a black member of Afrika Bambaataa's Zulu Nation, which promotes hip-hop awareness and is adamantly anti-racist. "If cats really did their homework and knew their history, the statements that are made about this group are just idiotic, it's almost comedic," he tells me. "It makes no sense whatsoever.

"It's funny to me that with them coming out, we're not talking about bling-bling anymore," he continues. "We're not talking about who's gonna get the most ass tonight. We're talking about a real issue, for once. When you look at them coming into this scene — if black pride is cool in the world, brown pride is cool in the world, I'll be damned if hip-hop cannot embrace some cats that are saying, 'We're here, we love y'all, but we're here, and we want our folks to know they need to start coming out and supporting.' They're doing the most bravest thing I've seen in the scene yet."

Over beers on a weekday afternoon, Diesoul elaborates for me further. "In my mind, America at large doesn't want this image for white people. The powers that be, in my mind, would rather a white dude be metrosexual and chill than be aggressive and down. It used to be cool to take care of your family and friends and be John Wayne about it and never disrespect but don't let no one disrespect you. Now it's on some tip that I'm not feeling. What we're doing is gonna give people an image to look up to, that 'I'm a whole lot more like that than I am like Justin Timberlake.' That's not who we are. We wanted to represent who we were. Why can't you be white and like it without being racist?"

Chris Lee, the author of the L.A. Times story, justified describing Woodpile as a "white-power group" to me in an e-mail, saying, "They feel I did them an injustice by referring to their politics as 'white power' as opposed to 'white pride.' It was an editorial decision no fewer than four editors weighed in on. In the end, the paper went with white power for two reasons. Experts on the matter say white power can mean white pride (that is, the advancement of white people not necessarily to the detriment of people from other races). While it certainly has connotations 'neo-Nazi,' I clearly point out in the story that that isn't Woodpile's bailiwick."

It certainly wasn't clear to me. I called up T-Po, the co-owner of West Coast Mafia Records, and he told me, "If you listen to their music, you can see there's no white power, white supremacy or racism. The only thing I got from it was they was proud to be white. I'm all for it."

Granted, you're courting controversy if you mention "white pride," and these guys realize that. For Diesoul, who spent almost three years in the Texas state prison system (Crisis and Critical have done various county stints around Arizona), he acquired his philosophy organically. Before going into the pen, he told me he was basically a wigger, selling drugs on the street and acting black. When he went inside, though, that attitude didn't fly.

"As far as changing who I was, it was like a slap in the face," he tells me. "Black people weren't fixing to have it. I was acting black. To the black dudes, that wasn't acceptable at all. Everyone was like, 'What the fuck's wrong with you?'" Diesoul learned quickly that inside, he was a "wood," and he took the prison vernacular to the outside and now uses it in the group.

The fact is, not only would West Coast Mafia not have signed Woodpile if it was a racist group, it wouldn't have signed them unless they were talented. The Streets Will Never Be the Same, Woodpile's debut album, is a hard record. Critical raps in a death-metal growl, which is an anomaly in hip-hop. The group members produced almost all of the beats themselves, and they're surprisingly accomplished for a debut.

The lyrics cover the expected territory for hardcore rap: violence, money, drugs, women. Like on "MBP," which declares, "All we want in life is money, bitches, and the power." A bit misogynist, perhaps, but nothing out of the ordinary for gangsta rap. "We for real when we say we gonna fuck you up," the first track, "Knuckle Up," asserts. These guys are hard, for sure, but they're not skinheads.

King Trick may be indulging in hyperbole when he tells me, "When I met these cats, what I saw was the potential to change everything that was negative in the industry," but because this controversy is making people examine racism head-on, perhaps he's got a point. "Rap in the beginning was about cats that were oppressed," he continues, and he's right. The divisions that Woodpile subscribes to are class divisions, not race divisions. And as ex-convicts, they've definitely seen some institutionalized oppression.

From my perspective, the best thing to come of this debacle is that Woodpile has been publicized countrywide (CNN did a brief segment on the band, which the members considered much more accurate, shortly after the L.A. Times article was published), and they're representing Arizona hip-hop in most of their songs, giving shout-outs to the Valley. Don't believe the hype — Woodpile isn't promoting any racist cause or representing any white supremacist groups; it's just trying to blow up. And the controversy hasn't hurt that at all, according to T-Po. "Sales are definitely up."
Thu., May 14, 8:30 p.m., 2009

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Brendan Joel Kelley