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The rappers in Money for Life have a rule: Nothing is off-limits in their lyrics, as long as they have firsthand knowledge of the topic. Whatever group members Ahsahnte Da King, 25, Da Ol’ Boy, 24, and Lil’ Lando, 20, speak on has to be something they’ve actually experienced.

That means the streets of D.C., women, and premium liquors are all fair game. Luxury cars, expensive suits, and big homes are off-limits. “We don’t talk about 22-inch rims,” says Da Ol’ Boy, aka Lawrence Gollman, “because no one [in the group] has ever had 22-inch rims in their lives.”

But hustling does make the cut. Not too long ago, Money for Life moved product around the city, enlisted runners to help them handle demand, and brought in hundreds of dollars each day. They made enough money to quit their day jobs, and even though they had to dodge the police, it was worth it. Their product had high profit margins, and the cash flow financed pressing MFL CDs, an MFL clothing line, and an MFL awards show.

They even put together a studio to make a new record, but there’s a good reason they don’t discuss their hustle much, even though under MFL rules, talking about the source of one’s wealth is wholly acceptable. Drug money? Not even close.

“CDs!!!” as DOB says on “Major,” a track from the group’s upcoming release, City Boys. “One for $3/Two for $5/You get go-go too, nigga, as long as you buyin’.”

Da Ol’ Boy got into the bootleg-CD game first, in 2004. Gradually, he brought in Lando (aka Olando Battle) and Ahsahnte (Alfredo Nelson), who is also referred to as “Boss.” MFL hit spots all over the city—Sursum Corda, Minnesota Avenue, downtown—with product lists and backpacks, slanging copies of copyrighted CDs for some of the most competitive prices in town.

People in the street praised them for doing something other than sitting around on their asses or trafficking in weed or crack—and sought them out for all of their music needs.

“They’d yell at us from buses, pull over their cars,” recalls Lando. “We were infamous.”

Their most fruitful spot was Hechinger Mall, the strip shopping center that sits where Florida Avenue, Benning Road, Maryland Avenue, and H Street NE meet. The hardware store the mall takes its name from closed long ago, and the space now holds a National Wholesale Liquidators. There’s a Modell’s sporting goods, a Safeway, an Ashley Stewart clothing store, a beauty supply store, a Radio Shack, and a Blockbuster. The one thing missing is a record store.

“Where is there a Sam Goody at in your local D.C. ’hood?” says DOB.

The bootlegging, they figured, would serve the community as well as their rap aspirations. They would sell cheap copies of the day’s major label hip-hop, soul, and R&B, along with go-go PA recordings, CDs from other D.C.-based rappers, and, of course, their own albums. Ahsahnte says he even acquired a vendor’s business license to sell MFL albums, to make sure everything about the group’s official business was legit. “Every time someone bought a CD, they’d buy ours, too,” Ahsahnte says.

Over time, MFL turned the bootleg trade into a peerlessly effective promotional tool in a market that is notorious for being unsupportive of homegrown hip-hop artists.

“People are more excited by Young Buck than someone from their hometown,” says DOB. “But I have the power of persuasion to get you off that Young Buck and on our shit.”

The guys served everyone. Little kids, old people, even, they say, police officers. Until one cop started working the mall who seemed more interested in throwing bootleg music in the trash than popping it in his CD player.

When Ahsahnte first started Money for Life in 1999, along with his friend Swann (Len Smith Jr.), the group was run like a corporation. Members of the then seven-member collective paid fees and were fined for missing group meetings. The rules were designed to generate income for their projects and force the artists to act professionally and focus on their craft.

“It was like a real business,” DOB remembers.

Things became even more strict when Ahsahnte started Te’ Style Records, in 2000. He had released a solo album with Virginia’s U.O.M.E. Records, but when the label was uninterested in signing fellow MFL members and other artists he was affiliated with, Ahsahnte started his own imprint. He read How to Make and Sell Your Own Recording and All You Need to Know About the Music Business and researched record labels at his local library. “I noticed everything was structured,” he says. “Not just everybody sitting around and talking.” He even took the step of giving artists official label titles and duties to carry out in addition to their musical contributions: A&R, publicity, and so on.

The group caught a big break when they lucked into what Ahsahnte calls some “serious contacts” down in Culpeper, Va., 80 miles southwest of the Payne Terrace neighborhood where they grew up. One of the guys knew a security guard at a nightspot in the Virginia town who brought the crew down for a show. “They actually stopped the regular club night and let us perform for a packed house,” Ahsahnte remembers. The group started coming down for regular monthly gigs, and when their run at the club ended, everyone came back but Ahsahnte, who got into a relationship with a local and decided to stay put.

When his relationship ended, in 2003, Ahsahnte came back to the D.C. area, reassembled MFL and again began imposing strict order. The Wu-Tang-like MFL recorded two albums, 2000’s The Last Days and 2001’s We Born, We Live, We Die. But some members began to chafe at the boot-camp approach—the exact sort of bureaucracy that people usually hope to escape by becoming musicians—and fled the group. Ahsahnte saw it as way to weed out people who weren’t completely dedicated.

“We found out who was serious and who wasn’t serious,” Ahsahnte says. “People were put on probation, just like at a real job, and people dropped out real quick.”

By 2005, MFL was down to a trio. Da Ol’ Boy, Ahsahnte, and Lando (who had just finished high school the previous year) began trying to figure out how to make the group work with reduced numbers.

The strength of the whittled-down MFL is that its three remaining rappers are experts on D.C. and each of them brings a unique perspective on their hometown: Ahsahnte, who is also the group’s beatmaker, usually sets the tone for each track; DOB swoops in with vivid descriptions of the block, from candy ladies to haters; and Lando provides the pathos. Tracks simultaneously praise D.C.’s culture and people while tearing down its poverty and drug use.

The guys believe their sound is better and less cluttered with only three voices. Their more recent work is tighter in focus. The songs adhere to themes rather than seeming to be just a collection of disparate thoughts from various artists who happen to rhyme together. They’re now more like the Three 6 Mafia of Most Known Unknown than the Three 6 of The End—that is, a sleek trio absorbed in their music rather than a huge bunch, all clamoring to get a word in where they can.

But every time they had an out-of-town show, needed to print up some fliers, or wanted to book some studio time, the members of MFL struggled to come up with the money. Without income from the group fees of seven people, things got expensive.

“I was working a regular telemarketing job and stayed broke,” says Ahsahnte.

Da Ol’ Boy, who had recently gotten into the CD-bootlegging game, courtesy of a neighborhood friend, had begun teasing the cash-strapped Ahsahnte, waving knots of money in his face and telling him to join the CD business. Still, the Boss wasn’t biting. “I said, ‘What would people say if they saw me on the corner talking about CDs!’” Ahsahnte says.

Finally, in the summer of 2005, DOB gave Ahsahnte a stack of CDs and told him not to worry about paying for the wholesale value of the discs, just to try it out and keep all of the money. Ahsahnte took the discs to work, mentioned this new side hustle to one co-worker and, within 10 minutes, he’d sold every CD he’d brought in—plus, people were putting in requests for the next day.

“I hit [DOB] immediately after work. He taunted me, saying, ‘I told you so.’”

Once Ahsahnte was onboard with the CD plan, his first move was to figure out how to make even more money off of the discs. “We were selling them for $3 a CD and paying $1 to our supplier,” DOB says. “One time, I was trying to get him to help me re-up and [Ahsahnte] said, ‘I’m not about to pay nobody for CDs.’”

Ahsahnte and DOB, and later Lando, started using a computer burner for copying, but it was a slow process. With the constant use, the computer drive quickly died. They then decided to buy a one-to-one duplicator to copy the CDs faster and more efficiently. “They’re 500, 600 dollars,” says DOB. “I was cryin’, but I had the money back the next day.”

Their overworked duplicators burned out every couple of months, but they were replaced without complaint—investing in the equipment had grown MFL’s bootleg business dramatically. By owning the duplicators, the guys were able to produce CDs for roughly 10 cents apiece, they say, a price that no one going through a supplier could touch. Aside from making their business even more lucrative, owning the equipment gave them control over the quality. Instead of making bootlegs of bootlegs—which is what many sellers do, hence the often watered-down sound of illegal discs—they bought a manufacturer’s disc of every CD they wanted to duplicate and made their copies from that, thus making their shit purer than anyone else’s around.

“We went from making 50 to 100 dollars a day [each], on a weekday, to making 300 to 350,” Ahsahnte says.

“And on the weekends, we’d double that,” says DOB. “We were the ‘Two for Five’ guys. The $5 guys hated us.”

Lando says there was always one day when they could count on raking in more dough than any other. “The first of the month!” he says.

“And you think drug dealers talk about the first of the month?” says DOB.

“Not everybody does drugs,” says Ahsahnte. “But everybody listens to music.”

The MFL guys ran their bootleg operation like they ran Te’ Style. They had lunch breaks, defined start and stop times, and assigned posts. Usually limiting their time on the street to a few hours each day allowed them plenty of time to finish up Lay Face Down, the third MFL album and start work on City Boys, the first record that would feature only Ahsahnte, DOB, and Lando.

With bootleg money, they were able to move from a makeshift studio in Ahsahnte’s bedroom in his mother’s house to a full-service setup in a basement apartment they began renting. They shot a video for “Rollin’,” a song about women rolling their hips and behinds, on rented charter buses. They got models to dance and paid video firm Love-TV to shoot the whole thing, which guaranteed it a spot on the company’s cable-access show of the same name.

The guys even sprung for T-shirts with “Money 4 Life” printed on them—later, when they were extra-flush, they had the T-shirts redone with embroidered letters.

The “Rollin’” single was played on the WPGC-Radio program Home Jams, but Ahsahnte insists that, despite rumors to the contrary, no money was ever traded for radio exposure. “People thought we paid for it,” he says. “We didn’t. It was just that, with the money we had, we were able to put together a really nice, professional package that probably caught [the radio station’s] attention.”

Out-of-town showcases were something the group always did, but once they started making that bootleg money, they upgraded the hotels they stayed in and the cars they rented. They traveled down South and up North, always booking the finest in accommodations.

“We did it exclusive with the hotels,” Lando says. “Jacuzzis, Moët…”

They started up their own open-mic event with Swann’s Buckhead Records, at the now-closed Deno’s nightclub on Bladensburg Road NE, and when they showed up at other folks’ events, they were able to show off a little bit. At one local event, the guys put up some cash for an ass-shaking contest, although it didn’t quite come off. “We showed up with the money, but there were no shakin’ asses,” Ahsahnte says.

Their success was sealed through two occurrences. First, the guys threw their own Money for Life Awards, held at the home of a friend. Ahsahnte and some women working with the label at the time bought party packs of liquor and shrimp platters. Ahsahnte had certificates printed up and affixed little decals to each one. He gave participation awards to everyone as well as accolades for best verse and best stage performance. There was even an award given for most units sold of Lay Face Down (Da Ol’ Boy got that one).

“We had it laid out,” Ahsahnte says. “All together I’d say [we spent] between 500 and 600 dollars.”

“Boss did it up,” DOB recalls. “The money was coming in. We went back to Dom Perignon again. Mo’, Remy XO…” The other big acknowledgment for all their work came when they got a second place Hip-Hop Artist of the Year nod at the 2005 Urban Independent Music Awards. Ahsahnte says that the guys auditioned for and received a spot on the show’s performance lineup and only found out they’d been nominated when they showed up for work. Again, Ahsahnte says, the moment was ruined by people who accused them of buying the regional awards show’s top prize. “People came up to me after, telling me that I need to get with the Wammies, where you don’t have to pay for an award,” he says. “I said, ‘We didn’t pay for shit.’”

But MFL also started receiving more positive recognition from others in the D.C. rap scene. Ms. Spice, a rapper, go-go talker, and owner/host on the Internet-radio Web site Tight Net, says she began seeing MFL on more showcases and featured them on her show a couple of times. She respected their determination and hunger and became even more appreciative of their drive after running into them one day at Hechinger Mall—at their other job. On her way to buy a piece for her PA board at RadioShack, she found Ahsahnte standing in front of Dollar Magic, selling bootleg CDs.

“I was like, ‘What y’all doin’ out here?’ They were like, ‘We getting our grind on.’ I said ‘I know that’s right.’ That first day I got Scarface from them—maybe a Bun B, too.”

Spice says the guys are following a great tradition of financing music making and gaining street buzz by exploiting musicians who have already made it. “50 Cent—he’s platinum, and he encourages you to bootleg his shit,” she says. “I don’t have any problem with it—they can bootleg my shit.”

“It’s helping them get their stuff out there,” Spice continues. “They’re selling their stuff, as well as other local stuff. I like that about them: They’re not all about self.”

A source at Hechinger Mall, who spoke on condition of anonymity, has seen MFL’s CD trade in action and defends the members’ method of making money, as well as their using bootlegging to, in effect, become their own street team.

“For a lot of guys, that’s the only way to get their music out there like that,” the source says.

That attitude is reflective of most of the people the MFL guys came across in their time as bootleggers. Ahsahnte can remember only one incident where he was berated by a member of the community. “This lady one time said, ‘You need to get a real job,’” he remembers. “Other than that, I thought someone said something to me about it one time, but they were talking to someone else—I was just being paranoid.”

Putting their CDs in the hands of tons of people each day while also making quick cash catapulted MFL in a major way. By the end of 2005, the members were almost finished recording City Boys, their fourth album, had moved about a thousand units of Lay Face Down, and, all in all, felt unstoppable.

Finally, after years of struggling, MFL had all of the money it needed to do the music thing right. The only drawback was the occasional ticket or citation. No arrests, nothing so serious that it made bootlegging not worth doing. “2005 ended up good,” Ahsahnte says. “Then Jackson came. He ruined everything.”

The cop the guys call “Jackson” first appeared a few months into 2006. They describe him as “chubby,” with a strong hate of bootleggers.

By all accounts, the cop in question is C. Jackson Jr., an officer with the 5th District whose jurisdiction includes Hechinger Mall. The Metropolitan Police Department would not allow Officer Jackson to discuss bootlegging at the mall or any specific interactions with any alleged bootleggers. Because the men were never arrested for bootlegging, the department declined to discuss details or identify suspects in any unresolved matter.

The MFL members say that Jackson started off slowly in his campaign to run them out of the strip mall. He’d snatch one of their bags here, write up a ticket there. More than anything, his interest in their business was a surprise, they say, because police up until that point either turned a blind eye or asked them for freebies.

“One day, me and Boss were at Hechinger Mall, Boss is selling to the cops as usual,” says DOB. “I see Jackson and say, ‘Boss, here he comes!’ and he threw his CD bag in the trash. [Jackson] politely gets out of his car, gets the bag out of the trash and says, ‘How you doin’ fellas?’ and walks away.”

Jackson showed up in different vehicles, the MFL guys say—unmarked cars, a police cruiser. Sometimes he wore civvies, often he was in uniform, but he was always ready to uncover their stash, take their bags, or give out tickets.

Jackson was predictable in another way as well: he always showed up after 2 p.m. The guys started doing the majority of their business before Jackson’s shift. On the rare occasion that they had to tread on mall property while the officer was on duty, they say they made sure to stay away from the Ashley Stewart, in the mall’s upper tier, where Jackson liked to post up and talk to the full-figured women buying clothing.

It hurt them to miss evening rush hour at the mall, but they were still making do. The members of MFL thought they’d figured the cop out until one day, early in the summer of 2006, when they believe Ahsahnte was caught up in a bootlegging sting at Hechinger Mall.

The operation began when a man approached and asked Ahsahnte for a bootleg movie—Brokeback Mountain.

“That was the clue,” says Ahsahnte.

“No grown-ass man is gonna ask for Brokeback Mountain,” says DOB.

Ahsahnte says he was hanging out at the mall selling when a buyer approached and asked for the suspicious title. Ahsahnte told the potential customer that he didn’t have any movies, at which point another hustler swooped in and told the guy he had what he needed. Ahsahnte says that many CD/DVD sellers used to hide their stashes in the Safeway, under the candy and bubble-gum machines, so the hustler led the buyer into the grocery store to complete the transaction. Suddenly, several cops jumped out, made arrests, and cordoned off areas of the mall with yellow tape.

“For CDs and movies!” Ahsahnte says incredulously.

Well, maybe not: that anonymous mall source is unsure that there was ever a formal sting to set up bootleggers. “I heard about some stuff that went on up there—they had a sweep—but it wasn’t just for them,” the source says. “They did that because Safeway was robbed and they were looking for the people who did that. The police aren’t going to set up a sting just for [bootleggers]—they have a lot more to do with the taxpayers’ money.”

Lt. Judith Anderson of Police Service Area 504 says that arrests of bootleggers are rare, unless an individual is carrying 100 pieces or more of illegally duplicated copyrighted material. She also doesn’t recall any recent sweep to catch bootleg CD/DVD sellers and doesn’t believe something like that would’ve happened at Hechinger Mall targeting just a couple of people. She recalls a bootlegging sweep recently but says it was a bust of an entire warehouse filled with equipment and thousands of DVDs and CDs.

“That sounds like an urban legend to make them sound bigger than they really are,” Anderson says of MFL’s account of a crackdown on bootleggers. “That’s like, ‘I’m a legend in my own mind.’”

In fact, Anderson says the worst of the bootlegging at Hechinger Mall ended a couple of years ago, before the rappers of MFL burned their first disc. Her officers—who leave regular surveillance of Hechinger Mall to an internal security team but patrol because of auto thefts, car break-ins, and other matters—give people who pull up and try to sell stuff out of their trunks two options: “You’ve got to go, or I’m going to take whatever it is you have.”

The Hechinger Mall source, although supportive of the MFL guys’ bootlegging operation, believes they are unfounded in targeting Jackson and that, compared to police who’ve worked the mall in the past, he is more than fair. “Honestly, he’s just doing his job,” the source says. “I mean, if someone gives you two warnings…He’s not harassing them; they need to stop that.”

Harassment or not, sweep or no sweep, after the Brokeback Mountain incident, MFL decided that things at Hechinger Mall had become a little too hot.

“I knew then it was over,” Ahsahnte says.

After the alleged bust, the guys say they got out of the bootlegging game. The threat of arrest contributed to their exit, but they also vowed to go straight after the death of DOB’s mother, Debra Gollman, shortly after the Hechinger Mall incident. “She was our biggest fan,” says Lando. The guys say she would’ve wanted MFL to achieve hip-hop stardom in a legitimate way. Now that he had to provide for his younger siblings, DOB decided he needed to find a better way to help out at home.

Lando and DOB now have regular jobs. Ahsahnte is working with the city’s Small Business Administration to open, of all things, a record store. He has a plan to bring in business and keep patrons away from bootleggers: He’s going to open his spot in an underserved area and offer cut-rate prices. “I’ve talked to some wholesalers; you can buy CDs for $5,” he says. “I’m going to charge [customers] $10 a CD—not $15 or $18.”

He believes that if there had been a reasonably priced record store in Hechinger Mall, he, DOB, and Lando would’ve never been able to sell as many CDs as they did. “We’d tried it in places like [Maryland’s] Eastover [Shopping Center] before, where there was a record store, and people would say, ‘Nah, I don’t trust those; I think I’m gonna go in here and buy it.’”

Ahsahnte also spends his days working on various group tasks, but says he is “through grindin’.” He works on the MFL Web site with the help of a contractor, makes beats, is trying to transition from the basement studio back to a home studio, and is trying to get City Boys pressed up, hoping to release it by the end of October.

The group is also active on D.C.’s open-mic circuit. They no longer throw their own shows, but they’re frequent participants in events around the city. At one open mic at H Street’s Phish Tea restaurant on a recent Wednesday, Lando and Ahsahnte have planned on being the eighth act of the night. They called and put their names on the list the day before and show up at 8:30 to ensure their spot.

But they end up hitting the stage well into the night and are restricted to one song. DOB can’t make it, so with fewer verses to get through, they sneak in a little bit of “Shady Game” and “Test Us,” both from City Boys. “We’re new here, so there are favorites, says Ahsahnte, who adds that things were much easier when they were putting on their own shows.

MFL is also preparing to release its second video, for the first single from City Boys, “Where I’m From.” Directed by Malik Pollard, the mostly black-and-white vid finds the guys rapping in various spots all around the city. Lando, Ahsahnte, and their friend Marcel drive to Pollard’s house on a recent Tuesday night to screen the finished product. Marcel remarks that this video is way better than their first one—even though they had more money and resources when they shot the video for “Rollin’.”

There are many frames of D.C. landmarks and, interestingly enough, shots of various small-time hustlers around the city. While Ahsahnte raps part of his verse, he’s standing in front of the guy who stands on the Souza Bridge offramp and wipes people’s windshields. There’s a shot of a vendor selling oils and a woman with a snow-cone stand.

MFL hopes the video will be the next step toward stardom—bringing the rappers closer to having a major deal, having their music heard across the country, and, if all goes well, having their own music bootlegged.

“I don’t think I could be mad at it,” says DOB of someone potentially selling illegal copies of his music if he were a major-label rapper.

“I’d be mad,” says Lando. “But not mad at their hustle.”CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.