Image: Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member (Grove Atlantic)

Publisher Synopsis: Written in solitary confinement, Kody Scott’s memoir of 16 years as a gang banger in Los Angeles was a searing best-seller and became a classic, published in 10 languages, with more than 300,000 copies in print in the United States alone.

After pumping eight blasts from a sawed-off shotgun at a group of rival gang members, 12-year-old Kody Scott was initiated into the L.A. gang the Crips. He quickly matured into one of the most formidable Crip combat soldiers, earning the name “Monster” for committing acts of brutality and violence that repulsed even his fellow gang members. When the inevitable jail term confined him to a maximum-security cell, a complete political and personal transformation followed: from Monster to Sanyika Shakur, black nationalist, member of the New Afrikan Independence Movement, and crusader against the causes of gangsterism. In a document that has been compared to The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Shakur makes palpable the despair and decay of America’s inner cities and gives eloquent voice to one aspect of the black ghetto experience today.

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Though this book was originally released in 1993—no doubt spurred on by the voyeuristic interest in South Central Los Angeles gang tales (even the story about how it came to be is rife with white fetishization of black pain and violence as proxy for “the black experience”)—I don’t think I read it until the early 2000s. Monster was penned entirely from prison, and mostly in solitary confinement if memory serves correct. I was so taken in by this story that I don’t think I put it down until I finished it. I’ve always had a fascination with Los Angeles, and Los Angeles gang culture in particular. I didn’t want to join a gang or anything, but I had a certain sympathetic outlook on those basically looking for love in all the wrong places. Plus, West Coast gang-inspired music was what I listened to more than anything. NWA was my favorite group and Eazy was the realest.

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But all I knew about gangs came from movies and listened to music, which, though clearly inspired by the lives they led before using music to get out, was sensationalistic as fuck and often presented under the guise of “street reporting.” But Monster was different. Monster was a real-life gang member telling tales that shouldn’t be real life. His life was pretty much set up for failure from the beginning, to the point that by 11 years old, he had already attempted murder. It’s hard to fathom a life so gone where somebody so young is so fatalistic. He goes into such detail about crimes committed, his life and, ultimately, how he turned it around—at least at the time. When the book was published in 1993, he claimed to have given up the criminal and gang life, but as recently as 2017, he was back in prison, having gone back several times over the decades since his release for an array of criminal activity.

One reason the book affected me was because of how much I learned about prison. Shakur served time in some of the most infamous prisons in America (e.g., Pelican Bay). I remember him explaining the gangland culture in prison, from the jumpsuit colors, to the differences between the southern Cali gang members and the northern Cali gang members, and how different they operated and identified. It was an education in what gang life really looked like, both inside and outside, without the Hollywood veneer. I remember hoping for the best for him and feeling like he’d made a real and permanent change because of reflection and knowledge, having come into contact with others who opened his mind up in that almost clichéd, convert-to-Islam trope-ish manner we’ve come to expect of every black man who changes while in jail. Knowing what I know now, the hope and optimism I had for him may have been him being a good salesman.

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So why do I recommend this book? Good question. I think Monster is worth reading for a real look at how kids so young can go so left so easily. Also, it’s damn near a biography of Crip gangs in L.A. Shakur came up under Stanley “Tookie” Williams, knew Tupac Shakur and made his way up the ranks of the Eight Trey Gangster Crips, his particular set, and helped explain the ongoing beef between the Eight Trey Crips and the Rollin’ 60s. It’s as informative as it is compelling. Of course, you do have to read it knowing that the suggested end in the book was just that, suggested, since his life pretty much has continued as a cautionary tale.

Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member (1993) by Sanyika Shakur