Ear Hustle’s Rahsaan Thomas prepares for freedom, incorporates new sound designer
Rahsaan “New York” Thomas is co-host and co-producer of Ear Hustle, and he has some big shoes to fill.
“I hope to have a chance to parole within the next year or so, and look forward to seeing what the skills I picked up at San Quentin lead to for me,” Thomas told the Current.
Ear Hustle is a podcast recorded at San Quentin State Prison’s media center. It’s been downloaded over 54 million times. The program was created by then-prisoner Earlonne Woods, and Nigel Poor, who initially entered San Quentin in 2012 as a volunteer instructor for a college class.
Though Poor’s background is photography, she served in a variety of volunteer roles in the San Quentin media center. Her volunteer work with San Quentin Radio sparked relationships with Woods, Antwan “Banks” Williams, and John “Yahya” Johnson, who came on board with Thomas in 2018.
The Ear Hustle platform was a spinoff from San Quentin’s radio show, KALW. In 2016 Woods and Poor began to move into straight storytelling, or what they termed “journeyism.”
Williams joined the duo around that time. The team produced a segment and submitted it to Radiotopia Podquest, a forum operating under PRX Network. PRX distributes and promotes shows that promote and grow podcast audiences, and also aids in raising revenue.
“It looked and sounded good, and it was a new and fresh perspective that wasn’t out there yet,” said Radiotopia and Ear Hustle Executive Producer Julie Shapiro.
The Ear Hustle segment won $10,000 for being a Podquest finalist plus a stipend to produce the first season.
“Ear Hustle is more than its episodes and awards,” said Shapiro. “It’s really about changing how people think about incarceration and people who are incarcerated. So, being able to employ guys who get out, and potentially women down the road, it’s the next level of what the show is for.”
Woods was noted for being in the Media Center typing away on an iMac from early morning to late at night. All of this was done voluntarily. His hard work and dedication eventually paid off when his sentence was commuted by then-Gov. Jerry Brown. He left San Quentin after serving two decades in prison. A month later, Woods was hired to continue co-producing Ear Hustle from the outside.
“When I got my first check, I just kept looking at it in my account through an app,” Woods said. “I literally had a check in the bank.”
Woods has created a nonprofit called CHOOSE ONE, an acronym for (Can Hip Hop Overturn Oppressive Sentencing Enhancements). Its goal is to abolish California’s “Three Strikes” law.
The other founding team members have also paroled and are doing well. Williams comes into the San Quentin media center now as a volunteer, and Johnson is earning a living utilizing skills that he developed while at San Quentin.
“I loved working on Ear Hustle inside, but there’s nothing like being paid for the work you actually do,” said Johnson.
“I worked with [Los Angeles prosecutor George] Gascon, did a podcast with [San Francisco prosecutor] Chesa Boudin, and worked with a Supreme Court Justice.”
Thomas, who came on board in 2018, has a direction in mind for Ear Hustle, “I would like to see Ear Hustle get stories from prisons in other states. God willing, if I’m released, I will get stories from New York.”
S. “Rhashiyd” Zinnamon, the sound designer who replaced Williams in 2019, and intern Tony Tafoya, contributed some thoughts about Ear Hustle’s future.
“They sky is the limit,” said Zinnamon. “I was taught by some of the best. I happened to be embraced by a brand that exists. I personally believe this is the best thing to happen to me. By coming from a music background, I have a platform like Ear Hustle to do it from. I can honestly say the training I got has given me insight into some really beneficial programs.”
“Rahsaan always keeps me humble, and he’s teaching me how to craft a really good story. If there is one thing he’s really good at, it’s finding and then sharing a great story,” said Tafoya.