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Pump Up the Volume 

In cinematic detail, Ronin Ro depicts the life of a repentant hit man with his first book for [S] Affiliated.

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Founded by film developer, writer, and producer Marc Gerald and actor Wesley Snipes, [S] Affiliated is a new publishing venture featuring black pulp fiction aimed at the hip-hop crowd. The goal, in Gerald's words, is "to foster literacy and develop a book market for a demographic that's largely been ignored by the mainstream publishing houses. We're creating a line of books that speaks directly to this audience. We're going after black male readers, because no one else has." Aside from fostering literacy, [S] Affiliated also aims to encourage a new breed of black fiction writers. "What we've done is try to marry the really talented writers from magazines like The Source and Vibe and XXL with great stories that we might come up with for them," says Gerald. The plan is to release a new title every other month, with a marketing strategy linking the books to the worlds of fashion, music, and film. Snipes's Universal-based AmenRa Films has a "first look" deal with [S] Affiliated, and if anything sounds like movie material, it's these action-packed stories.

Further, the first 50,000 copies of each book will be accompanied by a CD featuring new material from the Def Jam label. (These sleek volumes will also be available in record stores.) As Gerald puts it, "We try to do books that live up to the high standard that some of the best hip-hop artists have brought to the medium, and Def Jam's artists seem to be that." Additional sales support will be provided by PNB Nation, the influential hip-hop clothing line, which will help to sell and distribute the books.

The series debuts with Street Sweeper, written by Ronin Ro, author of Have Gun Will Travel (which related the story of Death Row Records). Street Sweeper is a vividly descriptive tale, and no wonder. In writing it, Ro states, he "was basically inspired by the stories that I feel are like the Broadway plays of the ghetto. I tried to write it in a cinematic style." Street Sweeper tells the story of Jerome Usher, a top-of-the-line Harlem-spawned hit man who, when he's not offing drug lords, Colombian trigger men, pedophiles, or informants, kicks back in his sumptuous pad in New York or ensconces himself in the VIP section of the hip club Babylon, a hangout for the record industry hotshots, assorted celebrities, and crime bosses -- it's a place "where the seven-figure niggas got their shine on the true players and hustlers who ran New York City." Usher works for Sidney, a former hit man turned agent who "skillfully managed Usher's career, mindful that each job led to greater prestige and higher rates."

For all the harrowing moments Usher encounters in the course of carrying out his duties, "Life was good. Money, power, respect -- he had it all." Nor did Usher lose any sleep over the fate of his unfortunate victims, rationalizing that most of them "weren't good people; they got exactly what they would have given had they gotten the drop. That made the violence easier to accept."

But the man who regularly experienced "bliss or better yet ecstasy" when he successfully completed a hit undergoes a major transformation the day his attempts to take out a Colombian triggerman go awry, and he accidentally shoots a young girl, Tess, walking home from a day-care center. The incident precipitates a crisis of conscience (Tess reminds him of his late sister Janet, herself a gunshot victim), which becomes the central focus of this book. Unable to bring himself to eliminate the witnesses, namely Tess and her mother Kesha, Usher instead winds up getting romantically involved with Kesha, and together they "began to act like an old married couple. They finished each other's sentences, watched TV together, helped each other out with the crossword puzzle." Usher cleans up his act, quits drinking, and attempts to push the hit man rules out of his head, all the while dogged by killers when he himself becomes a target.

When Tess's condition requires some $3 million worth of experimental treatment, Usher, hoping to alleviate his unresolved guilt ("helping Tess out would maybe help clean his soul") and at the urging of Kesha, sets out to kill a corrupt councilman and thus acquire the big bucks needed for Tess's treatment. ("Problem was, he didn't feel good about this job. It was the first time he'd ever felt this.")

Usher's quest to kill the councilman leads to an explosive series of events that culminate in the book's emotionally jarring ending. Because Ro centers so much of the narrative on exploring Usher's inner psyche with his tortured rationales and gnawing guilt, one can, like it or not, almost sympathize with what is an otherwise unsympathetic character.

[S] Affiliated's upcoming titles promise to be equally explosive. Antoine Black's International Assignment Hong Kong deals with the adventures of a smooth but volatile financial investigator sent to Hong Kong to uncover an eight-figure operation. XXL Money, written by forensic psychiatrist Roland S. Jefferson, is a caper yarn whose protagonist, Alonzo Crane, is given the chance to put prison bars behind him if he can retrieve a mysterious trunk containing millions of dollars from a luxury high-rise hotel. The Perpetrators, by crime novelist Gary Phillips, relates the escapades of a bounty hunter and the beautiful daughter of a murdered drug lord. Joel Rose's Anything That Moves tells the tale of Antoine "Too Cold" Reed, who opts out of a job running one of the biggest dope crews in Brooklyn to try his hand at a new career as a boxing manager, while hip-hop journalist Michael Gonzalez brings us Platinum, a book about a washed-up rapper on a mission of vengeance against the rap impresario who robbed him blind.

Wesley Snipes, in discussing one of [S] Affiliated's prime goals, expresses the hope that his target audience will get "excited about reading and enthusiastic and attracted to reading." These volumes, with their gripping, fast-paced narratives, just might do the trick.

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