As unfortunate as it is, hip-hop and prison have had a long and interesting history. Ever since the days of block parties and street corner cyphers, rappers have had tendencies to have police and law enforcement run ins. In no way is this a complete coincidence but by the same token hip-hop’s unconventional and rule breaking nature doesn’t always breed the perfect samaritans. Not to mention the increased visibility of crime related themes in hip-hop music these days. In all honesty, we can probably all name multiple songs from our favorite rappers that literally sound like a scene out of Grand Theft Auto. Are these songs necessarily one way tickets to jail? No. But where there is smoke, there’s a fire.
Throughout the years we’ve seen rappers go to jail for all kinds of different crimes. Things like tax evasion, drug possession, theft, weapons possession, assault, the list kind of goes on and on. Most recently, on December 18th, we saw New York breakout superstar Bobby Shmurda get hit with gun and drug charges forcing him to be locked up ever since. Young Shmurda could potentially be looking at 25 to life unless his lawyers are able to channel their inner Johnny Cochrane. But don’t count on it.
With all that said, can going to jail help a rapper?
At first glance the answer to this questions is obviously “no”. Too many times we have seen rappers at the height of their careers get locked up for an extended period of time, consequently losing the momentum they had previously built. We’ve seen this with rappers like Meek Mill, Chief Keef, Lil Wayne, Remy Ma and Shyne. All of whom had promising careers or album runs when in the blink of an eye, they are locked up for months on end; essentially just waiting and watching their big moment pass them by. Of course some rappers eventually recover post-jail but after a couple months relevancy fades fast, no matter how big the rapper. Not only does a rappers buzz die while in jail, they get hit with a lengthy probation that is often times difficult to manage given the “rapper” lifestyle. Meek Mill is a perfect example of an artist who served time, came out, then went back in for violating probation. It’s a slippery slope.
There are however some exceptions to this rule. In 1990, Notorious B.I.G. spent just under 9 months in prison for selling drugs in North Carolina. This was at a time when Biggie was just starting to cut his teeth in the rap game. He didn’t have a record deal, no label requirements and wasn’t even taking rap as seriously as he was taking the streets. Those 9 months really served two purposes for Biggie. For starters, it allowed him to focus all his trials and tribulations into wonderfully intricate rhymes that would go on to become classic records. A lot of notable verses from Ready to Die reference his time in jail and what he went through during those hard months. You don’t write a song like “Suicidal Thoughts” if you haven’t been through some serious stuff. Secondly, it probably made him realize that the street life has extremely dangerous consequences and how much better recording studios are than jail cells.
On top of that, when a “street” rapper who gets it how they live is released from their bid, the following project can be homecoming hit. Just look at T.I.’s Paper Trail album. After serving time in the pen and also doing a year of house arrest, Tip came out swinging on his sixth studio album. For as long as any of us can remember, T.I. has been talking tough on all of his records so when judgement day came, he bit the bullet and started to scheme for his epic return to music. Just try and tell me he didn’t plan the entire “Swagga Like Us” tuxedo-drapped Grammy performance while wearing a dirty jump suit behind bars. It’s almost poetic.
For some rappers, jail can be a time to get your mind right, learn your lesson, focus on what is important and come out with either a new outlook on life or a hunger to create quality music. Obviously, jail is not a glamorous thing and should never be strived for but it is interesting to see how a bad situation can sometimes create a more vivid art in hindsight.
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