“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.
New Jersey celebrated its 350th birthday from Sept. 2014 to Sept. 2015. And in the 350 Jersey Songs series, we marked the occasion by posting 350 songs — one a day, for almost a year — that have something to do with the state, its musical history, or both. The complete list is here.