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

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; C01

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.

Hip-hop magazine XXL has covered their stories, and earlier this year posed the question on its cover: "Does Getting Locked Up Hurt or Help Rappers?" The feature leaned toward the former. Fans, says Editor in Chief Vanessa Satten, have grown numb to their heroes' misfortunes.

"I don't think people are as compassionate as they used to be because, at some point, [going to jail was perceived as] a press stunt," Satten says. "I think that fans have shifted, changed, expanded. They're not identifying with you so much as watching you."

Ben Detrick, a journalist who has written about incarcerated rappers, says their problems with the law go well beyond the music. And he doesn't expect hip-hop stars to change their behavior.

"As long as the average rapper is coming out of communities where those kinds of problems are commonplace, it's just a natural sort of thing," he says. "I don't think it's something you can say is going to disappear."

Of course, run-ins with the law aren't limited to hip-hop artists. For decades, pop musicians of all stripes have faced arrest or jail time, including Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney, Johnny Cash, Phil Spector, James Brown, Jim Morrison, George Michael, Scott Weiland and Amy Winehouse. But the amount of hip-hop star power in prison this year is staggering, causing some fans to wonder if the culture has reached a crisis point -- and if the careers of some of its brightest talents will survive.

* * *

In today's hip-hop landscape, reputations aren't built behind bars -- they're built on the road. And when an artist's touring schedule is thwarted by legal troubles, the effects can be disastrous. Lil Boosie isn't a superstar outside of his native Baton Rouge, and most of his income is earned on regional stages. "He toured four to five days out of the week," says Courtney Scott, the rapper's manager. "That's where it impacts his family this most."

Now Boosie is left to rely on album sales. Scott says Boosie's new disc, "Incarcerated," has sold only 30,000 copies because "he wasn't there to actually promote the album himself."

Prison's effect on a rapper's pocket can serve as a wake-up call. Dan Charnas, a former Washington Post contributor and author of the forthcoming book "The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop," says that's exactly what happened in the cases of Jay-Z and Sean "Diddy" Combs.

In 2001, after Jay-Z pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in a stabbing incident and Combs was acquitted on gun charges, Charnas says both superstars "came back from the brink" because they had "business empires to attend to. Lil Wayne has never had any pretensions at being a mogul and neither has T.I."

Moguls, no. Brands, yes. And a rapper's brand image can lose value when legal troubles take hold. After his 2007 arrest, T.I. lost an endorsement with General Motors. After his Sept. 1 arrest he was dropped by Axe body spray and Rémy Martin.

Jail time is certain to hurt T.I.'s earnings, something that Forbes Magazine tracks with its annual "Hip-Hop Cash Kings" feature, an article that ranks hip-hop's highest-paid superstars. On this year's list, Lil Wayne came in at No. 4, earning $20 million; T.I. was No. 12, earning $9 million; and Gucci Mane stood at No. 20, earning $5 million.

But Forbes staffer Zack O'Malley Greenburg says the financial impact on rap as a whole is not significant. "Hip-hop's top 20 earners took in $300 million this year, about the same as last year," Greenburg says. "The fact that the number stayed the same despite jail stints from a few big stars means that artist incarceration isn't having a drastic effect on the industry's bottom line."

Expect T.I. and Gucci Mane to dip in 2011's rankings. Lil Wayne, however, is expected to rebound from his absence more quickly. By not being able to tour this summer, the rapper took an enormous hit. But he was still shrewd enough to plan for the autumn release of "I Am Not a Human Being," a mini-album recorded before he checked into Rikers. It arrived on iTunes on Sept. 27 -- the rapper's 28th birthday -- and once physical copies landed in stores on Oct. 12, it rose to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard album chart.

For the first time since Tupac, the artist with the top-selling album in America was sitting in a jail cell.

* * *

Lil Wayne has promised to start work on his hotly anticipated new album, "Tha Carter IV," immediately upon his release. Fans' expectations are high but perhaps not unrealistic.

"Prison can actually be beneficial to certain artistic processes," says Adam Bradley, professor of African American literature and culture at the University of Colorado. "It's not inherently a detrimental environment to creativity. . . . In the oral tradition, you have work songs and chain gang songs. . . . These were all things that were part of rap's origins and influenced rap as an art form."

Bradley is also the co-editor of "The Anthology of Rap," a new compendium that examines rap lyrics as poetry. In Bradley's view, Tupac, Slick Rick and T.I., who wrote much of his 2008 album, "Paper Trail," while under house arrest, emerged from prison as better lyricists. But not every rapper returns from prison to greater critical acclaim or an audience's embrace.

"For every Tupac or T.I. or Wayne who will likely weather the storm of incarceration, there are another dozen artists that won't," Bradley says. "And that's really what we stand to lose."

John Forté is the kind of artist hip-hop stands to lose. The 35-year-old Brooklyn native made his name writing and producing songs for Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill during their breakout years in the Fugees. Forté served eight years in prison after being arrested at the Newark airport in 2000 for accepting a briefcase containing cocaine worth $1.4 million.

Now he's trying to rebuild his career in a music industry that has shifted drastically while he was away. But Forté still feels that prison helped his music, giving him the opportunity to learn to play the guitar and reflect on his motivations.

"It was about making each day count for me and what I could do to become a better friend, a better son, a better citizen," Forté says. "The only thing that I can hope for anyone that goes through that system, celebrity or not, is that they afford themselves the honest inner dialogue that that sort of solitude and punishment can warrant."

Lil Wayne may be doing just that. During his sentence, he's posted monthly letters to his fans on the Web site http://Weezythanxyou.com. He spends most of his keystrokes thanking his supporters, outlining his daily routine and musing on professional sports.

In one entry from Rikers, he signed off: "Talent is best nurtured in solitude."

In many ways, Lil Wayne's unflagging ambition embodies the tenacity of hip-hop itself.

"Hip-hop is among the most adaptable art forms we have," Bradley says. "Hip-hop will emerge out of this moment. . . . Its future has the chance to be greater than its past."

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