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“This record ain’t no joke: Learn at the expense of our sorrows,” says Goldie Boone at the start of “Belly of the Beast,” by the Lifers Group, succinctly summing up the message of this hip-hop song. The group was made up of prisoners at East Jersey State Prison in Rahway who were serving sentences of at least 25 years, and the song — and the 1991 EP it came from, “#66064” — grew from the prisoners’ desire to let young people know what prisons, and lives of crime, were really about.

“I used to have a name, but now I got a number/I used to put suckers six feet under/Now I’m in jail, no longer a rebel/You can’t tell me a damn thing about the ghetto/I’ve been there,” raps group leader Maxwell Melvins (66064 was his prison number) during the song.

This wasn’t the Lifers Group’s first brush with popular culture. “Scared Straight!,” a 1978 documentary about a program in which Lifers met juvenile delinquents, face to face, and expressed to them the harsh realities of prison life, made a big splash when it was broadcast on television, and won an Oscar and two Emmys. “Belly of the Beast” and the other “#66064″ tracks represented an attempt to scare young people straight, another way, and though they didn’t have the same impact as the documentary, the Lifers Group was nominated for a Grammy in 1992 — in the Longform Music Video category, for ”Lifers Group: World Tour Rahway Prison, That’s It.” They didn’t win, and weren’t even allowed to attend the New York ceremony.

- JAY LUSTIG | January 5, 2015

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