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Growing up in East Oakland in the mid-1980s, P. Frank Williams remembers getting a firsthand glimpse of Too $hort’s early beginnings as a rapper while riding AC Transit along Foothill Boulevard—the same strip of road where the city of Oakland recently honored the iconic artist with his own street sign.
“I saw Too $hort on the bus when I was 13 or 14 years old, on the 40 bus,” Williams reflected. “This was when [International Boulevard] was called East 14th. Too $hort came on the bus with a radio, and he was rapping and selling his tapes.”
Nearly four decades later, Williams is an Emmy and NAACP Image Award-winning producer and journalist who built his career in large part by writing and producing stories about hip-hop artists, like Too $hort, who’ve been instrumental in shaping the culture.
In Oakland, Williams went to Roosevelt Middle School and graduated from Oakland High School before leaving to attend college at San Diego State and eventually the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He began his career as a journalist writing for the Los Angeles Times and freelancing for hip-hop publications like XXL Magazine. He later became executive editor of The Source, hip-hop’s preeminent publication throughout most of ‘90s and ‘00s.
Williams’ list of TV and film credits is long, and includes lead production roles on projects like the investigative Biography mini-series Who Killed Tupac?, the BET series American Gangster, the Paramount film Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan, and the documentary A Hustler’s Ambition about rapper Young Jeezy.
His latest project, Hip Hop Homicides, for which he served as an executive producer, takes a macro-level look at the recent epidemic of violence in the hip-hop industry while humanizing the artists who’ve fallen victim. The show was created by 50 Cent and Mona Scott Young, producer of Love & Hip-Hop. Over the course of eight episodes, the series takes an in-depth look into the murders of artists Pop Smoke, XXXTentacion, King Von, Magnolia Shorty, Chinx, Soulja Slim, Mo3, and FBG Duck.
Williams said he was first confronted with covering the reality of death in the hip-hop community when he wrote an article for the LA Times about NWA founder Eazy E’s tragic passing from HIV/AIDS in 1995. The experience served as a pivotal moment that allowed him to see the impact of his words on a national stage. He would later write the cover story for the November 1996 issue of The Source, about the death of Tupac Shakur.
“When I saw people reading my articles, there was a tremendous sense of fulfillment,” Williams shared. “In the early ‘90s was when I realized I’d made a whole life and lifestyle out of journalism, and I’ve been blessed to be able to do that.”
The Bay Area hip-hop community is no exception when it comes to lives lost from violence. Pittsburg-born artist The Jacka was shot and killed in Oakland in 2015, and gun violence also took the life of Richmond rapper Tay Way in 2020. With the more recent deaths of artists like Los Angeles rapper PnB Rock (in September 2022) and Houston native Takeoff (in November 2022) from the group Migos, the hip-hop community has been confronted yet again with asking: Why does this keep happening to our artists?
“I come from an era where people were dying already. By the time I got into hip hop, the music and the streets were connected,” said Williams. “There’s systemic violence, and educational issues, and poverty. Hip-hop is part of a [bigger] conversation about guns in the United States. It’s not just us, but we are a part of that.”
Some of the violence may be attributed to how rap artists are perceived, suggested Williams. Initially, many rap artists served as the voice of the community and discussed social issues. Others just wanted to get the party started. But with the rise of social media, artists today are more likely to be concerned with their own image, posting pictures of themselves with jewelry or other flashy possessions.
“There’s a bullseye on the rapper’s back,” said Williams. “Before, the rapper was the hero. Now, the rapper is chased and hunted down because of things like jealousy and envy.”
In the hip-hop community, the concept of “checking in” refers to rappers notifying respected hip-hop artists in a given region when they’re visiting a new city, to provide a watchful eye while they’re in town and get guidance on which areas to avoid to stay out of harm’s way. But Williams said doing so doesn’t guarantee an artist will remain safe. “I don’t know if checking in is really going to do anything. Most times, in these situations, it’s the people in your own city that kill you,” he said. “I think that there’s a lot of envy and hate.”
So, what does Williams think can be done to help stem the violence?
“I wish there was more of a conversation in Black America about gun violence and conflict resolution,” he said. “In the context of the entire country and the world, not just our music.”
During our conversation, Williams also stressed the need for elder rappers to step in more and provide guidance to young rappers, both in how they present themselves on social media, and how they interact with each other in moments of conflict. He also thinks more responsibility needs to be put on the rappers themselves to create art that provides more positive energy.
“We write about too much death and destruction and negativity in music,” said Williams. “And I think that because you grew up in a neighborhood and so you see big guns, you can’t necessarily blame them because artists only write about what they see, right? But let’s try to figure out how to balance it a little bit more with positive things.”
While Hip Hop Homicides is timely and allows us to know the details of some of rap’s most promising artists who we lost too soon, it isn’t a show that Williams necessarily wants to see continue.
“I’m very thankful that the show got on the air. And I’m hopeful that it’s prevention-oriented and solution-oriented,” he said. “But it’s not like I want to do 100 episodes of Hip-Hop Homicides.”
“Hip Hop Homicides” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on WEtv.