Hip-hop books reach for new audiences

'Street Sweeper' to debut this summer

— What kind of book reads like an action movie, comes with a soundtrack and is easier to find in a record store than a book shop?

It's a new breed of story styled in the image of hip-hop music -- slick, quick tales packed with violence, adventure and the kind of sexy drama more commonly found in music videos.

Publisher Marc Gerald hopes the books will create a new genre and grab the attention of young hip-hop music fans. So he's packaging his slim volumes of fiction with music CDs and selling them in record stores and clothing shops.

"Our books are really about style -- they're like cinema," says Gerald, CEO of the Hollywood-based Syndicate Media Group Ltd. "I wanted to create a place where people who'd never really thought of picking up a book for entertainment could turn."

Gerald's hip-hop fiction line, dubbed (S) Affiliated, is to debut later this summer with "Street Sweeper," a glamorized tale of a disillusioned killer-for-hire written by Ronin Ro.

At least 10 books are planned for the series. Most will be sold in record shops and clothing stores, although some copies will be available in bookstores.

The publisher, whose other projects have included unearthing and rereleasing what he calls "black pulp fiction" novels from the 1960s and '70s, says he hopes the new series will draw an audience of young music fans who have yet to learn the joys of reading.

"My mission was to bring books to people," he says. "We want people to be able to read them in two hours, between subway stops. We want to make them really democratic. ... A lot of people don't know what it means to pick up a book for pleasure."

Gerald sees his nontraditional sales plan as a way to reach out to young black readers who he says have been largely ignored by mainstream publishing houses.

The novellas -- which are the shape and size of CDs and have shimmery covers -- will be sold mainly in music stores and PNB Nation clothing shops. The first 50,000 copies of each book will be packaged with an original hip-hop CD from Def Jam records. Def Jam plans to produce a different six- or seven-song CD for each (S) Affiliated book.

The packages are to sell for $16.99, although Gerald said discounts would likely make the cost more like $14 or $15.

He has commissioned music journalists and novelists to turn his ideas into books that are about 150 quick pages. Actor Wesley Snipes is involved in the (S) Affiliated project, and Gerald hopes some of the stories will make it to the big screen.

Ro's profanity-packed "Street Sweeper," the first in the (S) Affiliated series, introduces readers to a professional New York killer named Jerome Usher, who has a closet filled with expensive suits and a safe packed with guns.

Usher carries a roll of hundred-dollar bills, guzzles Dom Perignon with a different woman each night and lives a life filled with cartoonish violence.

But his cavalier attitude toward murder changes after a young girl is injured in the crossfire that follows one of his contract hits. Usher falls in love with the girl's mother and starts a more down-to-earth life with her, promising to take just one more assignment in his old profession so he can pay for her daughter to have surgery.

Although his characters pull out guns at the slightest provocation, Ro says his book doesn't glorify violence. He was just writing a good story, he explains, adding that its twists and turns bring it down against the gunplay, drugs and materialism that are sometimes a problem in the music world.

For Gerald, it's all about bringing the spirit of sound to the page. He says several rap and hip-hop artists have contacted him offering to write their own stories for the series.

"You hear hip-hop when you read these books," he says. "I love that that's possible."

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