Rap Gets In Yo Face 

How Damon Jamal became the Bay Area's foremost rap video mogul.

Despite its name, In Yo Face Filmworks is kind of a hole-in-the-wall operation. The video production company occupies 1,400 square feet of a nondescript office building in downtown Oakland, also home to a couple of real estate agents, the Prison Activist Resource Center, and — at one point — a small art gallery and 'zine publisher. The walls within are painted a drab oyster gray, but for one fluorescent green screen and a line of glimmery rap posters. Sandwiched between the poster headlines are images of various local rappers, most of whom contract with In Yo Face in some capacity: J Stalin, Big Rich, Youngstas Outta Control, Rahmean, San Quinn. The most eye-catching in the bunch is Philthy Rich, a thin, rangy Oakland rapper with a dollar sign tattooed on his left hand, and a befuddled expression.

The actual Philthy Rich makes frequent cameos at In Yo Face. Last Wednesday afternoon he sat at one of the office computers watching the Discovery Channel's recent Gang Wars: Oakland reality show, which featured him as a principal star. Nearby, In Yo Face founder Damon Jamal edited a "clean" version of Rich's new song, "I Represent It," which he hopes to run on MTV sometime this fall. For half an hour Jamal stared fixedly at the computer, clicking between frames of the "dirty" Internet video. Using the software program Final Cut Pro, he installed a time-code generator and began reshuffling the images. He had to locate and delete any shot of someone flashing a pistol and replace it with something more innocuous — say, Rich rapping, or Rich's entourage strolling down the block. It was a rather time-consuming process, though the more tedious part came next, when Jamal tried to synch the clean song edit with the newly laundered video.

Where editing is concerned, Jamal has unwavering concentration. His meticulousness and clinical attention to detail have helped produce an impressive dossier: Right now it includes at least fifty music videos, dozens of Internet commercials, and scads of voiceovers. He even produces a video synopsis of KMEL's "Mansion Show," which airs Sunday mornings from midnight to 5 a.m. A former high-school truant who constantly brushed with authority figures, Jamal taught himself a few software programs, built a business out of nothing, and figured out how to optimize his revenue stream. Three years since founding In Yo Face, he's become a rap titan in his own right.

At thirty years old, Jamal is tall and reedy, with a narrow face and big, guileless eyes. He says he got turned onto computers early in life, while living with an aunt who worked for an ill-fated startup in the Silicon Valley. "It was an artificial-intelligence company," Jamal said. "I mean, there's no such thing as artificial intelligence, so that tells you how well the company did." In 1984, Jamal's aunt brought home a small, boxy machine that Jamal describes as a precursor to the Macintosh. He was bedazzled. Jamal started fiddling with his aunt's computer shortly after it came out of the box. In elementary school he discovered bulletin boards, a pre-Internet technology that allowed users to interact with each other over a server. By the time the Internet came around, Jamal was already a whiz.

Unfortunately, he could never parlay that technological know-how into traditional academics. Jamal got expelled from several high schools: first, Saint Francis in Mountain View, where he was "a scapegoat for everything that went bad." Then Palo Alto High, where he got kicked out for fighting. Then Mountain View, where he cut too many classes. Jamal finally landed at Shoreline Continuation School, where he flourished. "You didn't have to really deal with teachers, they just gave you a book," he explained. "They gave you the book, and you would just do the test at the end of every chapter. I got a lot of things done."

After finishing high school, Jamal worked odd jobs before forming his own indie rap label, Hidden City Records, in 2004. He put together a roster of artists and built a bedroom recording studio that he eventually moved to an office space in Berkeley. By 2006, Jamal was ready to expand his marketing reach. "I was looking around at different music video companies and people that did hip-hop commercials and stuff," he said. They were really overpriced, and their work was mediocre." Instead of shelling out a thousand dollars for a thirty-second commercial, Jamal decided to purchase his own HD camera and do the work himself. He taught himself how to use Final Cut Pro. Within a couple of months Jamal found himself at the helm of a new enterprise.

As it turns out, gangsta rap videos are kind of a paint-by-numbers affair. Jamal shoots most of them in the 'hoods where the rappers are from, focusing on obvious landmarks — houses, corner stores, street signs. (A crumpled green sign for Foothill and Seminary lies by the door of his office, seized from a recent Philthy Rich video shoot.) Often, Jamal will listen to a song over and over before coming up with a script that closely hews to the lyrics. He showed an example on his iPhone. "I'll make a file for it," Jamal explained, opening the file for Shady Nate's "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles." "I'll put where the scenes are at, where the verses are at. Rap verse one: An overpass of a train. I'll scout the location. ... He's talking about Amtrak." The song is about moving drugs from state to state, so the video had to involve several forms of transportation. "We got planes, trains, and automobiles in there," Jamal said matter-of-factly.

The concept is fairly simple, though the actual process can be a bit labor-intensive. Jamal frequently finds himself in some remote part of East Oakland for five or six hours at a time, trying to corral a large entourage of untrained actors. The job often requires him to be a stage manager and de facto disciplinarian: "You yell at 'em," he explained. "You tell them, 'We need everybody over here. Now we need everybody over here. If you don't come over here, you're not gonna be in the video.'" At this point, Jamal's got it down to a science. At three videos a week, he makes enough to sustain and even grow his operation. (Last year he hired photographer Tiffany Johnson to help split the editing duties, so it's now a two-person enterprise.) Jamal currently dominates the rap video markets in Oakland, Denver, and Oklahoma City. He's launching more-ambitious projects — including a VH1-style documentary about Fillmore rapper San Quinn — and trying to get better placements for his work. The spotlight on Gang Wars was a veritable coup, even if it was based more on Philthy Rich's connection to a particular homicide in Oakland (the video was a dedication to his slain cousin) than on actual artistry. Jamal said he still got paid.

Rich tried to capitalize on Gang Wars, too, but was denied actual paper returns. The producers said it would be a conflict of interest. At least it helped propel him to MTV.

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