Rappers like T.I. and Lil Wayne can't go to jail without missing a beat

(Photo illustration by Victoria Adams Fogg/Washington Post)
By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010

It was approaching noon at Washington's Mandarin Oriental hotel, but T.I. was still waking up.

Slumped in his chair, eyelids barely open, the rapper-turned-actor spoke sluggishly about his starring role in "Takers," a white-knuckle heist flick that was about to premiere at the top of the box office.

Having recently finished a nine-month prison sentence on federal weapons charges, he seemed exhausted from a busy press tour where he'd spent countless hours answering questions about his movie -- and his mistakes. When asked about the future, he issued a monotone murmur, as if praying to some media-age holy trinity: "More music, more movies, more money."

Things have changed since that August morning. Three weeks later, T.I. was arrested in Los Angeles when police pulled him over for making an illegal U-turn and found ecstasy pills in his two-tone Maybach. On Oct. 15, a federal judge revoked the rapper's probation and ordered him back to prison for 11 months. The release of his new album was pushed back once again. More music, more movies, more money would have to wait. First, more prison.

For an 18-day span in March, three of the most captivating -- and top-earning -- rappers alive were all serving time in correctional facilities dotted across the United States. As T.I. counted his final hours at a halfway house in Atlanta, Lil Wayne -- one of the most imaginative, prolific and successful hip-hop artists of all time -- had just checked in at Rikers Island on felony gun charges. Georgia rap star Gucci Mane was in jail for a probation violation. Another, Louisiana's Lil Boosie, was serving time for drug possession and would later be indicted on a first-degree murder charge.

This week brings more news. T.I. reported to a federal prison in Arkansas on Monday. Gucci Mane was arrested on a litany of traffic charges on Tuesday. Lil Wayne is expected to be released from Rikers on Thursday. So on Wednesday, all four rappers were behind bars. And while their careers appear to be headed in very different directions, they all illustrate how prison time can only harm a rap career. Tours derail. Endorsements vanish. Momentum slows. Infractions that used to help build a rapper's mystique now only jeopardize a brand.

The branding powers of a prison sentence felt tangible when Tupac Shakur's album "Me Against the World" topped Billboard charts in 1995 as he served an 11-month sentence for sexual abuse. Today, the notion feels obsolete.

"Jail for anyone's career is bad," says Texas rap legend Bun B. "It stops everything dead. There's no reason to be proud of going to jail unless you're going to jail for activism."

The prison system has left an indelible scar on Bun's life. As a member of pioneering Southern rap duo UGK, his career stalled when his partner Pimp C was sentenced to eight years for a parole violation. (Pimp C was released in 2005 and died in 2007.) Having collaborated extensively with Wayne, T.I., Gucci and Boosie, Bun sees this recent spate of incarcerations as a painful reminder of his own experiences.

"I understand the strain it puts on their careers," he says. "But even deeper than that is the toll that it takes on a family. The months and years you spend away from your children growing up? You can't get those back."

* * *

Across hip-hop's 30-odd-year history, the list of rap stars who have had their careers interrupted by jail time is startling: Snoop Dogg, Slick Rick, Lil' Kim, Mystikal, Foxy Brown, DMX and many others.

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