In March of 2009, T.I. was sentenced to serve one year and a day in prison for weapons charges related to purchasing machine guns and silencers. He’d been in trouble before, even as early as 1998, when he had been convicted on felony drug charges and possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute, in Cobb County, Georgia. Last year's news was huge, not to just Hip Hop, but pop culture overall. Between 2006 and 2009, T.I. finally ascended to the southern Hip Hop throne with his album titled, not-so-coincidentally, King. He became a Top 40 fixture since his "Rubberband Man"-supported 2003 album Trap Muzik, and one the biggest recording stars in the country. The thought of him going to prison for an extended amount of time seemed a disaster, but at least a solitary disaster.
But soon, another Atlanta, Georgia based rapper who’s grind rivaled T.I.’s was facing prison time, Gucci Mane. Gucci’s appeal was similar to T.I.’s: Trap-based anthems full of (although not as aimed to women as some of T.I.’s biggest hits have been) vivid street subject matter, and smoothed over with simple, catchy choruses. Gucci Mane’s personal background was somewhat like T.I.’s. He had a string of arrests and charges, the most infamous case being the one where he was charged for murder in a May 10th, 2005 shooting. (The charges were dropped in early January of 2006, due to lack of sufficient evidence.) And, like T.I., Gucci’s career seemed on the rise after a number of setbacks. 2009’s The State vs. Radric Davis was supposed to be the biggest bullet in Gucci’s chamber - where the charts would mirror the streets. But Gucci wasn’t even around to promote the album. On November 12, 2009, the Brick Squad leader was was sentenced to 12 months in jail. The State vs. Radric Davis did move 89,000 first-week copies. But if Gucci wasn’t in jail during the albums release, there's a greater likelihood that this album - still under the 400,000 mark, would have struck gold in the form of a plaque.
With Rap stars like T.I. and Gucci Mane in jail, it would seem that the industry (and the south in particular) would have gotten a little more time to reel from the blows of the two men being imprisoned. Unfortunately that wouldn’t be the case on Thursday, June 17th, when Baton Rouge, Louisiana rapper Lil Boosie was indicted on a first-degree murder charge by a grand jury from an incident that occurred in October, 2009. When Boosie was indicted, he was already in jail for probation violation. Lil Boosie’s case is the most serious of recent rapper troubles. A district attorney involved with the case said the death penalty is a possibility if Boosie is found guilty of the charges.
The list of incarcerated Hip Hop stars doesn’t end with these three men. Lil Wayne, who is a contender for Rap's biggest star of today, was sentenced to a bid on March 9th of this year for a 2007 arrest in New York for gun and drug possession. Despite the fact that his bid ultimately could be truncated, the fact that he went to jail at all, at this point in his career isn’t good, career-wise (He did recently dodge a conviction in Arizona).
The biggest question to be asked is...how could these guys even be in these situations?
Due to public access to Soundscan sales figures, Billboard chart positions, and well, the Internet, even the most casual Rap fan can glance at sales data and see the money that rappers make. Millions of dollars get compromised when big money earners go behind bars. According to Forbes' “Hip-Hop’s Cash Kings” 2009 list, Lil Wayne earned $18 million in 2009 before he went to jail, meanwhile, T.I. earned $8 million. It’s a fact, in the 21st century, rappers can make U2 money if they play their cards right. Peep this Forbes list (not the “Hip-Hop Cash Kings”, but the “Celebrity 100”) of 2010 Hip Hop guap: Jay-Z made $63 million, Akon: $21 million, Diddy: $ 30 million. If anybody from the legions of people who form the American working class had the opportunity to make astronomical amounts of money, you could almost bet that they would do so and be mindful of the law.
Unfortunately, Hip Hop history has many tales of rappers with promising careers cut short due to time in prison. 1980s Philadelphia hopefuls Steady B (Warren McGlone) and Cool C (Christopher Roney) started out with promising careers, robbed a PNC Bank building on January 6, 1996, and killed a police officer, Lauretha Vaird. In the aftermath of the prosecution, Cool C was to have been executed, but got a stay. Steady B got a life sentence in prison. Most Hip Hop heads know about Shyne’s ordeal; he served nine years in prison for a shooting in a nightclub in 1999, with Diddy and Jennifer Lopez in tow. At the time of the shooting, Shyne was Bad Boy Record’s rookie of the year and New York‘s answer to late '90s rising stars like Juvenile and Nelly. Shyne Po's buzz was huge, as was his press coverage. His jailing derailed his upward climb, and may have compromised his artistry, as fans react to a different thinking and sounding artist over a decade later.
The first notable Hip Hop incarceration story (that dealt with a true star) has to be the story of Slick Rick. Rick was a rapper who’s legendary role with Doug E. Fresh on songs like “La Di Da Di” made him one of the most anticipated emcees in history. When his debut album The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick was released in 1988, it lived up to all of the hype, and was certified platinum for a developing Def Jam imprint. Rick was one of the biggest stars and one of the most talented rappers of the late 1980s (and early 1990s). There really seemed to be no ceiling to his career - until one fateful evening in 1990, when Rick shot at a cousin of his who allegedly harassed Rick’s mother. Rick then led police on a high speed chase, and later crashed, injuring himself and his then girlfriend. After the mess, Rick was indicted on two counts of attempted murder and pleaded guilty to numerous other charges. He spent a total of five years in prison. Arguably, the cruelest blow dealt to Rick was to his career, which never recovered. The mind boggles at what kind and how big of a commercial star that Rick could have been, although he remains a Rap icon.
It’s understandable how rappers can end up in legal trouble. They are targets, as are most entertainers. And in a country racked by recession, it’s prime time for stick up kids to strike, especially emcees who’s image is gully, hard, or gangsta (or flashy). These guys in some way, shape, or form can potentially be tested at any turn. Years ago, Ice Cube lamented the fact that he had to leave his beloved South Central, Los Angeles neighborhood, because of kidnapping threats his family were received whenever Ice Cube was on tour. In 1990, on his lesser-talked about album, A Taste Of Chocolate, Big Daddy Kane mentioned that old friends he grew up with wanted to “Rob the motherfucka." In Cincinnati, Ohio, (where this writer currently resides), T.I.’s best friend Philant Johnson was shot and killed in 2006 after an appearance at Club Ritz. When T.I. was accused of illegally purchasing firearms a few years later, he mentioned the Cincinnati incident as a big reason why he wanted the weapons. In another city in Ohio, (Dayton) there were rumors for years of a famous Hip Hop collective that allegedly were robbed of all of their jewelry in front of a shopping mall. And who knows how many times in how many cities rappers, deejays, and producers may have been robbed or assaulted, or both? Even the most conservative hip-hop head can’t knock someone for wanting to protect himself and his family.
Despite the troubles some in the Rap world have had with being jailed, there is good that has come out (and can come out) of a few situations. T.I. seems to have turned a corner as far his attitude and outlook since his release from prison. His album Paper Trail was an open letter of apology to the public for his legal troubles. T.I. even hosted his own reality television show on MTV where he counseled at risk youth. He seems like a man changed, if you watch and listen to his audio and visual interviews. Gucci Mane not only resumed his mixtape grind, but actually publicly buried his beef with Young Jeezy, a dispute that appeared far deeper than Rap since he got out. And Lil Wayne seems ready to pounce once he gets out of jail. He’s got an empire to look forward to (and Thank Me Later money to count), and the business of prepping Tha Carter IV.
Real Rap music fans (and media) try their best not to judge their Rap heroes when they go to jail. Despite the overwhelming diversity of the Hip Hop community, a good number of our stars still come from impoverished areas. Or, they are people of color. And anybody who either is poor, or ethnic, or both, knows the perils of everyday life. In this country, you can get caught out there. And for famous, well known Rap stars, not only does the law potentially have a bulls-eye on their back, but so do the jealous civilians out there who would love nothing more than to their jewels and status…and/or their lives. It is understood that modern rappers face the dilemma of: carry a gun and protect yourself, and possibly get into a firefight with a hater, or don’t carry a gun, and taken out by that same hater. And, as anyone who followed the T.I. Ohio incident, knows, not even the V.I.P. section of the club is safe for stars anymore.
What does irritate real Rap fans is that some rappers should know better. Frankly, Hip Hop as a culture has fought too hard and too long for 21st century Rap stars to have unprecedented revenue streams, only to see them halted them because of…a gun and a bag of weed found in a front seat. Or anything that common sense could have prevented. Hip Hop’s charm stems from the underdog fighting for and gaining respect, success and status…not losing it all because of a massive loss of focus. Rap fans ride with their favorite rappers through thick and thin. But, we hate to fall with our idols. Being blessed with success and losing it all to prison time isn’t smart, gangsta, or funny. It’s bad business, counterproductive, disrespectful to those that came before them…and wack.
The views and opinions expressed in the following feature editorial are those expressly of the writer of this piece and do not necessarily reflect those of HipHopDX.