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Last spring, Whitefolkz, a D.C.-based rapper, decided to add to his plentiful body art and get a fresh tattoo. It felt like a good day to have someone draw on his forearm in permanent ink.

He headed to the only place he trusted to do his work—Topp Dogg Art Studios, a tattoo shop in District Heights owned by his man Infa Redz, also a rapper. Upon pulling up to the tattoo parlor, Whitefolkz parked, walked to the storefront, and steeled himself for a couple of hours under the needle.

He opened the door and stepped inside, but before he could settle in, he noticed something strange hanging on a wall of the shop: a blue bandanna and a red bandanna intertwined—a symbol of unity and peace between long-warring Los Angelesnbased gangs the Crips and the Bloods.

Whitefolkz is a member of the Gangster Disciples, a gang with roots in the Midwest. Gangster Disciples don’t have much to do with the feud between Crips and Bloods—they’ve got their own battles to fight. But Whitefolkz has always been taught that Crips and Bloods were enemies, that blue and red don’t mix under any circumstances.

Even though his own gang’s symbol—a black bandanna, or “flag”—wasn’t a part of the display, seeing the fabrics of the Crips and the Bloods cuddled together made Whitefolkz cringe.

“They were wrapped up like snakes,” he says of the flags. “That’s a nasty image, right? My first thought was, Nasty. It was obscene to me—like pissin’ on a cross, like taking a shit on a cross.”

Whitefolkz says he felt sick to his stomach, as though he’d eaten some food with too much grease in it, and almost walked out of the shop.

“Then I was like, no—I can’t walk out. It’s them,” he says.

The “them” Whitefolkz refers to are Infa Redz, a Crip from Southeast, and Don Juan, another rapper and a member of a Blood set in his native Bronx. Infa Redz placed the flags in his establishment as a way to announce the setting aside of differences, as he, Whitefolkz, and Don Juan had recently become friends—and business partners.

Despite belonging to three different gangs with varying degrees of animosity toward one another, the men had decided that if they were to join forces, they could have more of a presence in the area hip-hop scene.

Through his relationship with Infa and Juan, Whitefolkz had changed some of his feelings about rival gangs. His initial queasiness over the flags was quickly replaced by something else.

“At the same time I was disgusted, I wished it had been a black flag up there, too,” he says.

Whitefolkz stayed in the shop and went ahead with his new tattoo, which joined several others, including a self-portrait surrounded by a cityscape and the words god of the ‘6’locc, which is the name of Whitefolkz’s most popular single. The “B” in its title is replaced with the number “6” to avoid using the most important letter in the culture of Bloods. Some attitudes friendship hasn’t changed.

Infa’s entire stomach is covered with buildings and the words topp dogg hill. Amid the scene are a couple of names carved into his stomach, too—whitefolkz and don juan.(Photograph by Charles Steck)

The three men are not former or “reformed” gang members. They are active, meaning they’re not supposed to associate with one another according to codes they swore to live by when they joined up. But as rappers, Whitefolkz, Infa Redz, and Don Juan couldn’t resist forming their own clique based on the fact that they all bring something important to the table—each has a specific skill they believe they are the best at. Don Juan makes the best videos, and he raps; Whitefolkz makes the best beats, and he raps; and Infa Redz has connections all across the city, in addition to artistic/tattooing skills, and he also raps.

The men decided that, in the absence of what most people view as typical gang behavior—selling drugs, fighting rivals, and the like—gang structure has a lot in common with record-company hierarchy. And there’s a successful precedent for rival gang members uniting in order to sell records, and run labels just as they did crews on the street.

“Snoop’s a Crip, Suge Knight is a Blood—he’s up there; he’s like a five-star general,” says Infa Redz. “Them two were successful with Death Row—it can be done.”

“My set is changing into music,” Infa says. “I have the power to do something different, a chance to let people know how it is—not to kill or beat people, but to do music. Fuck these streets.”

“Fuck being a gangster,” says Don Juan.

In 2005, Infa Redz was busted on gun charges and spent a brief stint in the Prince George’s County Correctional Center in Upper Marlboro. He’d been making some noise on the rap scene before getting locked up—performing all up and down the East Coast and releasing a couple of mix CDs.

Infa watched a lot of TV while he was inside and one day happened upon a video on cable Channel 80 featuring and directed by Don Juan. He’d noticed the rapper, whose group at the time was always decked out in head-to-toe red, at a couple of rap shows in the city before—had even spoken to him a couple of times. But after admiring Don Juan’s video, Infa got the idea that maybe he could work with Don Juan on a project—even though he was a Blood.

“While I was in jail, I saw his video—I remembered him,” Infa says. “I didn’t wanna deal with him like that, but I said, ‘I need a video.’ ”

After Infa was released in winter 2005, he contacted Juan to direct a new video for him. Infa had recently relaxed a bit about associating with Bloods and other rivals—he was interested in linking up with people who could further his rap career, period. Juan was feeling the same way, so the two men were able to arrange a video shoot for one of Infa’s tracks, “Chaos 4 Life.”

They decided to hold the shoot at the Safari Steakhouse in Lanham, Md., the site of a popular open-mic night that both men frequented. Infa rented out the entire space and filled it with members of his set. The normal open-mic night was pushed back a few hours to accommodate the shoot, and no one complained about the delay except for one loud-mouthed white guy who got pissed off.

Cyriz, Infa, and Sweetheart(Photograph by Charles Steck)

“I went to Safari to perform a 10-minute set—there was a large group of Crips, and I knew Bloods were there,” Whitefolkz recalls. “Then, before I perform, I find out Crips rented out the whole steakhouse to film a video—I gotta wait. Me—Whitefolkz, Perfect Hairª, Jesus Christ,” Whitefolkz says, spouting off his many nicknames. “I gotta wait?”

“I remember saying, ‘Who the hell is this white boy in here?’ ” says Infa. “[Everyone] was like, ‘That’s Mr. Whitefolkz—he sounds good.’ ”

When Whitefolkz finally got on, he performed “Get My Weight Up,” which includes a line about having a black bandanna tied around his face. He was anxious about how a venue filled with Crips and Bloods would react to the Gangster Disciples shoutout but figured everything was good when he was approached by a Crip—Yung $yte, Infa Redz’s little brother—who told him he’d liked his performance.

$yte even asked Whitefolkz if he wanted a cameo in the “Chaos 4 Life” video; however, the invitation wasn’t based solely on the strength of Whitefolkz’s stage show.

“I was outside when he performed, but he had the baddest shorties with him,” Infa says. “I was like, ‘They with the white boy?’ I had to introduce myself to him to get them in the video.”

So, after a few introductions and the distribution of some compliments, the Blood, the Crip, and the Gangster Disciple set out to make a video.

The shoot went pretty much without incident. In a generous mood, Infa even allowed Whitefolkz to throw up a sign of the Gangster Disciples, who are also called “Folks.” There was a slight problem, though, when Whitefolkz taught one of his signs—a hand contortion that mimics an upside down pitchfork—to one of Infa’s soldiers.

“Crips and Folks both stand for the six-point star, and we both wear blue and black,” Infa explains. “I have better feelings for Folks than Bloods, but we still do us. It’s like, say a Spanish person learns to speak American, but their mother might jump on them about speaking American in their house—‘Boy, you’re Spanish!’ We throw our ‘Cs’ up and our six-point stars like Folks do, but we don’t throw the pitchfork up,” Infa says of the hand sign specific to Gangster Disciples. “That’s not something we stand for.”

That incident aside, however, the video was a success. Infa got the clip into rotation on a local show for several months and says he was beyond pleased with how Juan handled his video. “He put a blue bandanna behind my background—I was just so impressed,” says Infa. “I wanted to do more work [with him]. It was to my advantage.”

The men started collaborating frequently—Juan even let Infa use his home studio until he could help him build one of his own. The two began recording together; their first track was “BFA,” which stands for “Brothers From Another,” in this case, another color, rather than another mother. “That’s when it really went from, Oh, they’re just doing a video,” Infa says. On “BFA,” Don Juan provides a hook, which goes, “You stay true to me, I stay true to you/You stay blue to me, I stay blue to you/But I fuck with Redz, and I fuck with Red/So if you fuck with Redz, then it’s a must you’re dead.”

Soon after that, Infa adopted Juan’s entire squad as his own family. “I took in the producer, the singers—everybody. They just came in and started working alongside us,” Infa says. With Juan’s help, Infa outfitted the Topp Dogg shop with a studio and soon Crips, Bloods, and Folks alike were coming in and out to work on music. Thus the appearance of the intertwined blue and red bandannas, which was a gift given to Infa by one of Juan’s people as a gesture of respect.

All of the men have done plenty of solo work and projects with other groups, but they became even more prolific and well-known around the city when they began to collaborate. Between the three of them, they’ve shot several videos over the past year, and have done countless shows and collaborative songs together. Infa Redz’s new mix tape, The Infa Ready Mix CD, Volume I, has contributions from both Don Juan and Whitefolkz. Whitefolkz’s upcoming album, God of the ‘6’locc, will feature both Infa and Juan on it. Same thing goes for Juan’s latest, Most Juanted.

In terms of hard numbers, the men have already seen respectable record sales for their projects: Infa’s mix tapes have sold approximately 25,000 copies in total, Whitefolkz’s The Way That I Live moved 2,700 units, and Don Juan’s Juanted sold 300 the first day. They hope that in coming together, their numbers will only improve. “Bronx is Blood territory,” Whitefolkz explains of Juan’s borough. “Because of Juan, Infa and I are able to go and distribute our music there and in other areas that we normally couldn’t.”

To cement the partnership between the three in a more formal way, Infa decided that they should have their own set. He approached his OG and asked if, in addition to the D.C. squad he oversees, he could create a crew that would focus on making music and allow members of rival gangs to join. He got the go-ahead and started TDG—Topp Dogg Gangstaz.

“People wanted to be Topp Doggs, but they couldn’t, because of what they were,” Infa says. “But they were qualified—like Don Juan and Whitefolkz. What I did was I took it upon myself to sanction TDG. If you were a gangster when you came to me, you were a TDG. We started it—Me, Juan, and Whitefolkz.”

“Nobody can tell me who I can’t hang with,” says Juan. “But we joke about it sometimes. If we were doing anything other than what we’re doing, we’d probably be beefin’.”

“I think we’re better friends because we’re enemies by nature. I was raised, bred to hate them, but we mesh—no homo.” —Whitefolkz(Photograph by Charles Steck)

We’re all one hood ’til we walk out that door,” says IIFace the Wild Boy, a WKYS-FM radio personality and host of a recent Tuesday night open-mic showcase at Northeast’s Club Envy. “And hopefully you keep it like that after you get outside.”

The showcase, which Whitefolkz, Infa Redz, and Don Juan attend almost every week, gets pretty packed, and there are a lot of attendees and performers who appear to have some sort of gang affiliation. Flags are on display, as is jewelry and gang tattoos. The gang colors seem especially plentiful for D.C., which is known for unorganized neighborhood affiliations rather than structured local sets of national gangs.

But everybody gets along, and the mood is all love. Whitefolkz, Infa Redz, and Don Juan all have individual stage slots, and when one gets on the mic, the others jump on stage to play hype man for him. Tonight, Infa is up first. He’s got a CD of beats in hand to give to the DJ—on it “Crips” is written in fat red marker, with a line drawn through the “C” so that the word looks like “drips,” a slur against Crips that other gang members often use.

“My daughter’s mother did that shit,” Infa says, laughing. “She’s a Blood. I’m in violation there. People always ask us what our daughter’s gonna be. I tell them, ‘Not a goddamned thing.’ ”

During Infa’s time, he’s joined onstage by Folkz, Juan, Cyriz da Viruz, a rapper and Crip who is Folkz’s roommate, and Eezy Money, another D.C.-based rapper. The men perform a track called “G’d Up.”

“That song was the epitome of what we do,” says Whitefolkz. “That was a Blood, a Crip, a Gangster Disciple, and a dude from Trinidad, who’s not affiliated, all onstage. The song is about struggle, being a G. I think we’re better friends because we’re enemies by nature. I was raised, bred to hate them, but we mesh—no homo.”

Although the men are experts in gang code, they live by the more inclusive G-Code—the basic “don’t snitch, look out for your people, don’t trust the police” constitution. And their more generic, less rigid approach to gang life is catching on.

When Crips greet Crips, Bloods greet Bloods, or Folks greet Folks, they give a specific kind of dap filled with symbols of importance to their gang and set. Folkz, Infa, and Juan have devised their own pound that incorporates a few symbols from each of their respective gangs.

They’ve also come up with a new flag that carries relevance for everyone who is part of their squad, regardless of color loyalty. At Club Envy, many of the people in attendance, in addition to their red or blue bandannas, sport a “money flag”—those ’do rags with dollar bills printed all over them that are often sold by street vendors and at beauty-supply stores.

The money flag is one of the main symbols of the Topp Dogg Gangstaz. After all, no matter what color you pledge allegiance to, who can be mad at green?

“Everyone like money,” Whitefolkz says. “Even if you’re not trying to get it, you’re fucked up if you don’t have it.”

Even though they are in violation of certain gang rules, the men say their partnership increases their visibility and, by extension, the visibility of their gangs and sets. Gaining a name is something that all sets, regardless of the umbrella they fall under, are encouraged to pursue.

“One of your missions is for people to recognize your set,” Infa says. “What we’re doing with music is what young’uns used to do with graffiti back in the day—back in the day, if you were poor, young, and black, the only way to do it was with graffiti—to put it on walls. Now with music, people throw their sets up on CDs.”

As an added benefit, the men’s rap careers—both as individuals and through TDG—advertise their affiliations and also, they hope, help strip them of the usual things associated with gangs.

“I’m instilling in my soldiers that drugs is the easy way out,” Infa says. “There are other ways to get money. Music is like the drug game now—if you can’t get it now, you don’t deserve it.”

Although Infa doesn’t actively recruit members, he doesn’t even consider accepting anyone with no interest in pushing music.

“Most of my whole squad is into music, and I don’t deal with people that can’t do anything for my squad,” he says. “If you can’t rap, can’t sing, can’t sell CDs, can’t make a MySpace page…you have to bring something to the table.”

Even Infa’s rites of initiation have changed. He used to tell new recruits to perform an illegal act in order to prove loyalty, but he’s decided that young soldiers are no good to him in jail and now has them do other things.

“When young’uns approach me now, I tell them, ‘Here’s 5,000 fliers and 600 CDs. Now go sell ’em,” says Infa.

“Drugs is the easy way out. There are other ways to get money. Music is like the drug game now—if you can’t get it now, you don’t deserve it.” —Infa Redz(Photograph by Charles Steck)

Although coming together and focusing on music should’ve taken the men away from negativity and violence, they’ve found it can actually have the opposite effect in some cases. Whitefolkz, Infa Redz, and Don Juan have all had to defend their partnership to different parties at one point or another.

Whitefolkz has to answer to fellow Gangster Disciples about his relationship with Infa and Juan on MySpace, of all places. “I get G-checked on MySpace,” Whitefolkz says, rolling his eyes. Folks from around the country leave remarks on his comments page after watching videos that feature Infa and Juan wearing their colors and throwing up signs. “They say, ‘Why you got those Crips—those “drips”—in your video?’ ” he says. “I explain to them that it’s all good. I get about 12 G-checks a week—Folks are a couple million large.”

When one Gangster Disciple from Chicago sent Folkz a MySpace message accusing him of blasphemy, he responded: “These ‘drips’ are my tattoo artists, my producers, my roommates, my bodyguards, and my best friends. When you can provide all of those things all the way from Chicago, then we’ll start talking.”

Infa, as a high-ranking member, has few superiors to answer to, and therefore being checked and disciplined for fraternizing with the enemy isn’t as much of an issue for him. His problem is one of enforcement. He’s not able to intervene in squabbles between his Crips and members of other gangs, which becomes more and more problematic as his social circle expands to include all sorts of people.

“I don’t really have to worry about violation; I’m one of the heads of my squad. A lotta times I find people in violation, but I practice what I preach—I can’t violate this man for doing what he does and then I’m not in violation,” Infa says of penalizing his soldiers. When he, Juan, and Whitefolkz worked on the “Chaos 4 Life” video, he chewed out the member of his set who threw up a pitchfork sign at the urging of Whitefolkz, “but now I throw up that same sign when I stack.”

In a more recent incident, one of Infa’s friends and his daughter’s mother got into it over color, and there was nothing he could do about it. “I was in middle; he couldn’t see nothing but she’s a Blood, a ‘slob,’ ” Infa says. “Even though it’s my babymama, I can’t side with her over him—I can’t fight her battle.”

“I’m a positive person, but because I’m a general, a lot of negativity comes at me,” Infa continues. “I wish I could say, ‘I’m not doing this no more, I’m just gonna do music,’ but I can’t do that.”

In addition to catching heat from those inside the culture, the men began catching more heat from law enforcement after they began concentrating on music. Infa says that when Don Juan, Whitefolkz, and their associates started frequenting Topp Dogg Art Studios, the shop became the focus of frequent raids.

(Photograph by Charles Steck)

“They’d come up in there and search the whole shop, just because of who they’d see coming in and out,” Infa says. “They’d search everybody in there, and the only thing they might find is a bag of weed on one person.”

“And then we had the flags up,” Infa says, referring to the intertwined red and blue bandannas. “They should’ve seen that and known that nothing was going on.”

Sweetheart, a top-ranking female member of Infa’s set, who also did body piercing at the Topp Dogg tattoo parlor, says she witnessed two raids at the shop while she was working there. “They’d say, ‘We suspect you of this, we suspect you of that’—I think it had to do with age more than anything,” she says. “Being young, black, and successful.”

At one point, Sweetheart says, P.G. County police imposed a 10 p.m. curfew on the shop. “From their perspective, they figured there had to be something going on because everyone is going up there,” she says. “But they failed to realize that people were going up there for either tattoos or music.”

The Prince George’s County police department declined to comment on gang activity in the area, but Cpl. Diane Richardson, a police spokesperson, says that the department regards gang-related activities as a serious matter.

Sgt. Andrew Struhar, of the Metropolitan Police Department’s gang intelligence unit, says that Crips, Bloods, and Gangster Disciples don’t have a large presence in the region. “There’s been some activity we’ve seen with graffiti, but we haven’t seen any activity through group crime,” says Struhar. “We’ve talked to some people who claim membership in the area as a whole—I’m speaking of the Capital Region, not just D.C.—but there really hasn’t been activity.”

“I haven’t run across anybody to debrief that’s been, as I say, a ‘for real, for real’ Blood or Crip member,” Struhar says. “I haven’t run into anybody with full-blown tattoos, bandannas—original gangster stuff.”

Struhar says that Gangster Disciples were once active in D.C. but have been dormant for some time. He mentions that there have been some incidents in Fairfax involving Crips, and Blood activity has increased in Baltimore, but “besides that there are some little pockets, but nothing very organized.”

“It becomes, more or less, a social aspect of it, or the reputation aspect of it—[music] would definitely sell better, it definitely adds a marketing edge,” Struhar says. “We’ve seen investigations where the targets have been involved in selling CDs and putting out music. We’ve also seen, in the past, people involved in a gang-type lifestyle also involved in music promotion—that would be, again, an added kind of marketing or advertising to claim Crip or Blood.”

In part because of problems with the police, Infa Redz closed the tattoo parlor in mid-2006. But Infa, Whitefolkz, and Juan say that the parlor, which was a headquarters of sorts for TDG, actually helped the county with its gang problem and that police made a mistake by harassing its employees and clients.

Whitefolkz says that Landover and Capitol Heights, two former hotbeds of gang activity and warring, have calmed down considerably in the past year or so. He attributes the calming, in part, to the example that he, Infa, and Juan have set for young soldiers by association with one another.

“There’s no killing there over gang colors,” he says. “That’s not because of the police—that’s because of us.”

A couple of months ago, Whitefolkz was offered a record deal by a small independent label. They took him out to a fancy dinner and attempted to get him to sign on the dotted line. “They wanted to give me a $700,000, two-year deal,” Whitefolkz says. The catch? “They wanted to be the sole benefactors of my life insurance policy—stereotypes.” Whitefolkz declined their offer. “But I ate some $17 a la carte potatoes, and I had some asparagus, even though I don’t like asparagus and it makes your piss green.”

The guys get why Crips, Bloods, and Folks are profiled, but they don’t quite get why they’re seen as inherently evil, and hope that they can change some perceptions.

“ ‘Crip’ stands for ‘Community Revolution in Progress,’ ” says Infa. “There’s no negative there.”

“Gangster Disciples stand for ‘Growth and Development,’ ” says Folkz.

“ ‘Blood’ stands for ‘Brotherly Love Over Oppression and Destruction,’ ” says Juan. “There’s nothing negative in that.”

“The best way to understand it is that we all see a greater good than the negatives,” Whitefolkz says.

(Photograph by Charles Steck)

At another Club Envy showcase on a recent Tuesday night, Infa shows off his latest tattoo. Nearly his entire stomach is covered with freshly drawn buildings and the words topp dogg hill in giant letters. He inked all of it himself, upside down. Amid the scene are a couple of names carved into his stomach, too—whitefolkz and don juan.

“If we betray you, that’s gonna cost a lot of money to get rid of,” Whitefolkz tells him, laughing. Infa shrugs.

They’ve got too much stuff going on right now to part ways. The men have a new manager, Ms. Kitten, a frequent host of local hip-hop events, who Whitefolkz says has the business savvy they need to make it to the next level. “Thugs like us need someone like that to handle things,” Whitefolkz says.

Whitefolkz, Infa Redz and Don Juan are consistently recording new tracks, making new music, and putting on shows. Whitefolkz’s new album drops in a couple of weeks. Infa is already at work on his next mix tape, and Juan has been out in Denver coming up with new material and recording. All of the activity has Infa contemplating something he’s never considered before. “I think, if it came to one of Juan’s shows, I could wear red for him,” Infa says.

“He wore a red tie once,” Juan says.

“That’s right! I wore a red tie to court—I forgot!” Infa says. “You should’ve seen how hype he was. I don’t wear red at all. That meant a whole lot to him.”

Whitefolkz interjects: “I can say this because any lady in the D.C. metropolitan area will tell you—I’m no homo. That’s real talk. So, I can say, there’s a lot of love emanating with us.”