The creators of ‘Ear Hustle’: ‘We were just trying to tell stories’

Print More

Francesca Leonardi

Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor

I absolutely love reading and writing. During the pandemic lockdown at San Quentin State Prison, where I am incarcerated, I read dozens of books and, since June of 2020, I’ve had 22 stories published.

Yet this is my first book review. Ironically, it’s about This Is Ear Hustle, written by Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods, co-hosts and co-producers of the podcast they chose me to work on with them. I even found myself mentioned late in the text.

Of course, my connection to the podcast on stories about system-impacted people could make me biased. Or, as an insider, I could decipher the chapters like a hacker who works for NASA. Plus, it was easy for me to get an interview with the co-hosts and co-creators. I just pray the Society of Professional Journalists doesn’t kick me out.

Frankly, bias is okay here, because This Is Ear Hustle will appeal to loyal listeners and book types who want to learn about life in prison and on parole.

It reads in the style of the podcast: candid interviews revealing the secret lives of system-impacted people laid out like trial transcripts.

While many of the guest characters are familiar to Ear Hustle listeners, the vast majority of the material is brand-new — exclusively for the book.

Between interviews, Nigel and Earlonne banter, their magic apparent even in print form.

The book opens like a memoir, with Earlonne and Nigel taking turns telling their backstories — the dramatically different paths each took that landed them at San Quentin State Prison together.

Earlonne, a former gang member, gives the details of the attempted carjacking that led to the police gunning down his unarmed friend, Furman “F-Dog” Little.

A sketch of Furman appears on that page, as do other drawings throughout the book — another Ear Hustle trademark. The image works to memorialize Furman.

Earlonne was charged with Furman’s murder, but the charges were eventually reduced to attempted robbery. Under the three-strikes law, he was still sentenced to life in prison, which led him to San Quentin.

Nigel, a professor of photography, followed her curiosity to San Quentin. The post office kept delivering letters mailed from Quentin that were addressed to someone that lived nowhere near her. Years later, when a chance to volunteer at the infamous prison arose, she took the opportunity to follow the epistolary omen.

I was surprised to see Nigel and Earlonne expose some of the dirt Ear Hustle had to dig through in order to launch. The media center is a small place that houses several entities, including San Quentin News; SQ Radio, which works with KALW; SQ TV; and First Watch (now Forward This), in addition to Ear Hustle. There are no soundproof booths. Nigel and Earlonne talked about the competing egos and attitudes that almost made Nigel quit.

That limited space is something that Ear Hustle still navigates today.

In the second section of the book, the interviews begin with a familiar name — Chanye Hampton, aka Mittens. He appeared in the episode “Life Shows Up.”

Here, Chanye talks about going to prison for the first time and is joined by a host of other voices that have appeared in the podcast, including Joe Kreiter, “Rauch” and producer John “Yahya” Johnson.

Other topics are covered, including objects, alliances, memory, family and the three-strikes law.

In family, Karen McDaniel’s story about being a “ride or die chick” stands out. Karen talks about being married to a man serving a lengthy sentence at Calipatria, a maximum-security prison in Southern California. The professor reveals the difficulty involved in loving someone behind bars and what she did to hold a spot on the visiting-room line outside the prison.

The third and final section of the book details the steps, stages, fears and anticipation of Earlonne getting a commutation of his sentence. His release led to my becoming a part of the Ear Hustle family.

It was eerie reading about Earlonne’s commutation process while I’m going through my own. The commutation will grant me a chance to see a parole board next year for a shot at freedom. That section of the book feels like déjà vu.

This Is Ear Hustle also covers the work around when the COVID-19 pandemic at San Quentin shut my colleagues out of the prison for over a year. The behind-the-scenes challenges to keep the podcast going without being able to enter its home base are discussed. 

The book ends, like every episode of the podcast, with Lt. Sam Robinson giving the final word and his approval. His authorization was not needed to drop the book, but no Ear Hustle “episode” would be complete without him.

I interviewed both Nigel and Earlonne, starting with their choice to write their book like an episode of Ear Hustle. Here’s what they had to say:

Earlonne: This book wasn’t a memoir or autobiography. We stuck with Ear Hustle stuff because it wasn’t about everything else. It’s about, did we do something that everybody else felt was impossible?

During the pandemic, it was the best time to dedicate some time to doing this because everybody was locked down and there was nothing else to do. The only challenge about writing the book to me is that I’m not an organized person. I was intimidated by people that wrote books because when you write a book it shows you can organize your thoughts. Me, I’m scattered so I needed help to be able to be like point A, point B, point C and stick with that instead of, I’m in 1977, I be over here in 1986, I be over here, you know what I’m saying. So the organization side was really intimidating to me until we sat down with an editor. That kept me on pace. It was kind of easy — when you’re sitting with somebody that’s really skilled and that’s their [thing].

Nigel: I think Ear Hustle is familiar to people and it would work best that way and it wasn’t supposed to be a book about us. That’s why just the first part is about us, then we move into what we do, which is everyday stories about life inside prison and post-incarceration.

The part written like a memoir that we would never talk about on Ear Hustle is how Earlonne and I arrived at San Quentin and how Ear Hustle began and a little bit of the drama behind starting it. And then we wanted to go deeper into some stories people knew and then we wanted to tell all new stories. So one of the things we really like is our conversation, our banter between each other, so that’s how we started each section. It’s definitely like the podcast but with new stuff in it.

Rahsaan “New York” Thomas: Did the interviews with familiar voices like Ronnel “Rauch” Draper come from unused tape or new interviews?

Nigel: It was a combo platter. Some was old tape that we never used, and some was new. And then there were some people that we interviewed that were never in a story, like Karen, about being married to someone in prison. We had stuff from Michelle, who was actually in a story but stuff that wasn’t on the podcast. The stuff about race, I don’t think we could have that on the podcast because it was pretty intense — Tommy talking about race. Those were all new ones. And the stuff about three-strikes, the stuff that Earlonne did. A lot of that was all new because on the podcast we intentionally don’t do stories about policy. But that’s such an important topic to Earlonne we both felt we could cover it in the book in a way that was more genuine to the way Earlonne wanted to talk about it.

Earlonne: I would say 80% of the interviews are new. Karen talking about women in the visiting room and how that whole process goes. We did interview a lot of new dudes — Tommy Winfrey on gangs was a new interview, and the only time we dove back was when we were reflecting on something.

Nigel: I actually had to fight to include the race part in the book. Our editor was so-so on it. I thought Tommy was really powerful because it was so honest and depressing. You know at the end when he’s like, if I went back to prison, I would do it all over again. And he’s not a racist. It’s survival. I really admire the honesty of it, but even thinking about it now, it gives me unhappy goosebumps. It’s awful those choices people have to make, and we don’t tell those stories so much on Ear Hustle because we’re not at a level-four prison. I want to tell more difficult stories, like Tommy’s story.

Rahsaan: Earlonne, you created an organization called Choose1 dedicated to abolishing the three-strikes law in California. Why was it important to include a section about the law in This Is Ear Hustle?

Earlonne: I had to put the three-strikes law in there because that has taken a big portion out of my life, even today. I’m on the streets doing Ear Hustle and my EAronnious Funk shit, but I’m spending more time on the three-strikes law because it’s my story that funders want to hear. I’m the one that has to go in front of them and spit my spill. It was taking a lot out of me, but I had to put it in there because the three-strikes law has been one of the things that affected me the most. That’s how Ear Hustle was created, by way of me being here on a three-strikes sentence. Luckily, I didn’t have to serve the rest of it, because I’d still be in prison until 2028.

Rahsaan: Nigel, seeing and working with people in prison as equal colleagues has always been important to you and comes through in the book. In practice though the power dynamics in a volunteer-incarcerated person relationship aren’t so equal. How do you manage to navigate that?

Nigel: I don’t see myself as a volunteer; I see myself as a colleague.

I was a volunteer. When I taught at PUP [Princeton University Project, now Mount Tamalpais College], I saw myself as a volunteer, and I saw it as my job to come in and teach photography and to teach subjects that I know really well. When we started the podcast, I didn’t know how to make one, so we were learning together. So I don’t see myself as a volunteer — this is part of my job, working with people outside and the people inside. So when I come into San Quentin, I come in as a colleague. It’s a state of mind and I hope it’s the way that people see me — as a colleague, not as a volunteer.

Ear Hustle couldn’t happen without the people inside and couldn’t be without the people outside. It’s just one of those projects that could not be without all of us working together. I think that’s different than most organizations or things that happen in prison. We need each other to make it work.

Rahsaan: Ear Hustle was a 2020 finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and won the duPont award. What does it feel like to be honored for our creation in such a huge way?

Earlonne: I don’t know what none of that stuff feels like. It’s different when you go to school for journalism and you’re trying to achieve those awards. I wasn’t trying to achieve none of that. We were just trying to tell stories, and we just so happened to win some awards in the process. I wasn’t heavily invested into winning them, but for some people that shit means like, man! Like if I say that to some people, they be like what? You’re a what? Because they have more value in it than me. But it’s definitely cool. I appreciated it.

Nigel: When those things happened, I really got excited. I thought it was great, but then I quickly forgot about it and it just kind of desiccates. So I have to be reminded about how amazing it is. Like when I see that, I get kind of a thrill. But I care more about the stories. I’m just so focused on the stories and getting good stories out that those things tend to fall away, but if we didn’t get any of them [awards], I’d probably feel bad [laughs].

I guess I’m one of those people that if something positive happens to me, I think it can’t be that great. So I have to remind myself that it’s actually pretty amazing that we’re a Peabody finalist.

The other thing that allows me to celebrate it more is that it’s for a group effort. When you get something for a group effort, you can celebrate it more and feel good about it because you know it’s not just about you, it’s about this team working together doing something, and that’s a really nice feeling.

Rahsaan: I’ma be honest. Me and Rhashyid take a lot of pride that we were Pulitzer Prize finalists and duPont award-winners for season four, our first season, because I was always worried about following Earlonne’s footsteps and would the ratings go down and would I be a disaster. And for that to be the season that won the awards, I’m really proud.

Nigel: So see, that makes me able to be more proud [laughs]. I think our goals are so genuine and thoughtful and that people see that and we’re allowed to do what we do. I think we have gotten so used to what we do that we forget how amazing it is that a prison has given us the space to do this and then we’ve done something really great with it.

Rahsaan: And we do this in a hallway [laughs].

Nigel: I was giving a talk on Ear Hustle and telling people, doing this is really hard and you forget how hard it is when you have been doing this for a while. I was describing our space, it’s really loud, and it’s like we are no one’s priority. I’m just so, so proud of us. So humbly proud.

Rahsaan: Ear Hustle has found a way to adapt and even thrive through challenges like its co-host paroling and the COVID-19 lockout from San Quentin. I may get a chance to be released in late 2023 or 2025. How does Ear Hustle plan to change or grow if I am finally released?

Nigel: This is a question I don’t know the answer to. I don’t know what we’re going to do. I think that our relationship is probably going to change somehow inside San Quentin. I don’t know if we’re going to have another co-host.

This is a really difficult topic because obviously I want everyone to get out, but it’s going to change something. Like, oh man, another person I’m close to isn’t here anymore. So there’s some sadness that comes with it along with joy. You must feel that way, too. Of course you want to get out, but there’s people here that you’re close with that you really care about.

Rahsaan: Most of my favorites are out already. There’s only about three or four names I’m going to get on a T-shirt and try to get them out, too. So I feel like my cohort has left me behind. Emile, Earlonne, Adnan — these guys are actually off parole, and I haven’t even gotten on yet.

Nigel: Antwan, Yahya.

Rahsaan: Antwan, all of them. And it feels like a new population that’s not my people anymore.

Nigel: I feel the same way.

Rahsaan: New circles, new cliques — it feels weird.

Nigel: I feel similarly to that, that I don’t know as many people here anymore. I feel we’re still trying to recover from COVID and get our footing back. I think we did a good job, but how do we get back to doing more stories that are San Quentin–centric? And after you’re done, I really don’t know. It keeps me up at night. But I want you to get out. … It’s just that you get used to the relationships you have with somebody. There’s consistency and a routine to it, and then when it shifts for better or worse, there’s just a growing period that can be a little hard.

Rahsaan: I hope to be like Earlonne, Antwan and Yahya and come back in. But I think three years from now, I wouldn’t be that interested in coming in because I wouldn’t know anybody. I think in three years, all my favorite colleagues will be out. I don’t know, we might have to set up in CIW [a women’s facility] [laughs].

Earlonne: Our mission is to leave prisons better than when we go there. Like offer shit that probably wasn’t here or needed to be offered or give somebody something to do or something to achieve — make this shit different until it ain’t no more.

As far as you, it’s figuring out what you want to do when you come home.

Rahsaan: I’m staying on the West Coast, but I see no reason why y’all can’t fly me back and forth to New York for stories and to see my momma [laughs].

Earlonne, what have you learned from hearing from women with partners in prison and women who were or are incarcerated?

Earlonne: I think it’s the same struggle, it’s just different. They go through probably more — when you take a mother out or a father out, who is going to hurt the most? The mother is more attached. The mother gave birth. You hear those types of stories. They miss the kids.

Rahsaan: What’s the most surprising things you’ve learned doing the book?

Earlonne: With the help of others, I can stay on point and get it done. That was the most surprising thing — that I could write a book.

Nigel: I really had fun writing the book. I thought it was going to be so hard. And I just really enjoyed the process, and it was fun to write a book with Earlonne. I just didn’t know how it was going to be. We’re good partners in other things, so why wouldn’t we be good at writing a book together? But I tell you something, I haven’t read it and I haven’t listened to the audiobook. And it’s kind of like that — when something is over, it’s hard for me to go back even though I’m proud of it. I love the process and love that it’s out. It’s really hard for me to crack it — is that weird?

Rahsaan: I love going back to read stuff I wrote. I like to see how much I’ve grown and where I can still grow.

Nigel: Well, I will have to read it at some point and listen to the audiobook. It was interesting doing the audiobook — that was much harder than I thought it was going to be. It took us about a week to do it. There’s some real people and then some actors, and Earlonne and I read ourselves. It was hard. I’m so used to being on the mic and talking for the podcast — I find that pretty easy, but reading a book is so different.

Rahsaan: Yeah, how do you keep that energy up for 30 pages?

Nigel: It’s not easy. And sound consistent and keep going back for mistakes. I’m dyslexic, so it’s hard for me to read. One of the things that’s easier about the podcast is that it’s a lot of riffing, so I see it in my head. Looking at a book and seeing a whole page of words makes me really nervous, but it helped that I did it with Earlonne.

Rahsaan: What do you want people to take away from reading This Is Ear Hustle?

Earlonne: No matter what the situation is, always think outside the box. Don’t never let something stop you from doing what you want to do. When it seems like it’s all bad, it’s all whatever, it’s not. Just keep pushing forward and you can get it done.

Nigel: I want people to get an understanding of how we got to San Quentin and how the podcast started and how challenging it is and how effortless we make the episodes sound. So I want them to understand a little more of the nuts and bolts. Of course, I hope it continues to get more people interested in who is in prison and rethink the prison system.

And also just realizing that the everyday experience is so fascinating, that you don’t have to tell these insanely big stories. You can tell small stories that speak a lot to who people are and how they engage in life. I just hope that continues to come across.

Also, that everybody is interesting if you take time to talk to them. You can pull anybody out if you sit across from them respectfully and show interest and ask questions and want to know what the answers are. I love that — it makes life so interesting. So, I hope This Is Ear Hustle continues to challenge people’s assumptions about who is in prison, but also who is around them.

From a cell at San Quentin State Prison, Rahsaan “New York” Thomas is a writer, podcaster, producer, director, youth counselor and advocate. He hopes to still be the chairman of the San Quentin satellite chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for Northern California after writing this article. To support the work of incarcerated writers, volunteer or donate at prisonrenaissance.org/donatevolunteer.

One thought on “The creators of ‘Ear Hustle’: ‘We were just trying to tell stories’

  1. I became an aspect of Earlonne’s life by way of a backdoor so to speak. I like to see it as a spiritual connection that happened ‘on purpose’ yet wasn’t initially realized as such. Reading through this document was captivating. I hope this work continues and that great things come out of it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.