The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

03 Greedo has spent the last two years in a Texas prison but is still the beating heart of L.A.’s rap scene

Los Angeles rapper 03 Greedo. (Deawnne Buckmire)

It’s the last day of June and 03 Greedo is on the other end of the phone speaking from inside a sweatbox Texas state prison where he’s spent the last two years. When the Los Angeles street rap seer wakes up tomorrow on the first day of July, he’ll have lost all of his inmate privileges. For a biblical sum of 40 days and 40 nights, the pride of Watts will not have any contact with the outside world: no phone calls and no mail; no trips to the commissary; no fresh air and recreation on the yard.

It’s a total lockdown at the sweltering Middleton Unit in Abilene, Tex., a penitentiary already wracked by hundreds of positive coronavirus cases. To compound the purgatory, Greedo will learn the following day that a parole board has denied him his freedom for at least another year.

“I don’t know if people understand how crazy the Texas prison system is,” says the 33-year old who was born Jason Jackson, speaking via phone in the waning hours before he’ll be silenced until mid-August. “There are still literally units here where prisoners are picking cotton.”

The 20-year sentence — which was handed down at the peak of his light-speed ascent to rap stardom — was part of a plea deal copped in the aftermath of a 2016 arrest where he was the passenger in a car found with four pounds of methamphetamine and two stolen pistols. Potter County Sheriff’s deputies had pulled him over on Interstate 40 in the Texas panhandle near Amarillo, a federally designated “high-intensity drug-trafficking area.” Presently, Greedo is attempting to overturn the sentence via a collateral attack on the previous judgment — he and his new attorneys claim that his prior counsel was ineffective and grossly negligent. But the ongoing pandemic has shut down the courts for the time being.

Impact and regional pride

In Middleton, Greedo may be inmate No. 02208297, but he remains one of the most consequential rappers of the decade back in his native Los Angeles, where there are no easily quantified metrics to assess his massive impact. The regional pride overflows for him the same way it does for Boosie Badazz in Louisiana — Greedo is a guttural, raw and visceral embodiment of the Black American struggle and the bone marrow of his native city.

In the same way as Gucci Mane, Greedo’s brushes with the criminal justice system only served to enhance his outlaw mythos, a comparison that he explicitly makes on “Gucci of My City” from this month’s “Load It Up Vol. 1,” a joint album with his longtime collaborator and fellow Watts native, Ron-RonTheProducer. It’s one of more than a dozen albums and a thousand-plus songs that Greedo recorded in a frenzied and entirely freestyled recording binge leading up to serving his prison sentence.

In the six months prior, Greedo had catapulted from an independent YouTube phenomenon with a fanatical audience in South Los Angeles, Compton and Watts to the recipient of a million-dollar major label deal with Alamo Records, someone who was enough of a celebrity that TMZ breathlessly reported on his final days of freedom. He was poised to be the city’s biggest national star since the emergence of Kendrick Lamar before he became an inmate in Texas.

The chasm between worlds couldn’t be starker. The damaged pop experimentalist with “Living Legend” inked on his face went from 2,000-capacity theaters packed with fans singing along to every word from his “Purple Summer” mixtape trilogy to a summer squabble with prison guards about laundry detail. Greedo says this was the crux of the violation that led to his most recent punishment, a trivial infraction that caused him to lose the points for good behavior he had accrued over the past two years.

In the Lone Star state, there are essentially 254 different justice systems, one for each county. In places like Dallas and Austin, voters have elected district attorneys in the “progressive prosecutor” mold. But overall, Black people are incarcerated at a rate roughly 4 to 1 compared with Whites. In Potter County, it’s double the state average.

“It’s an obscene rate,” says Doug Smith, the senior policy analyst at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “Where [Greedo] is being held is just an indescribably awful hell, but the entire system is in a holding pattern. We’ve pressed them to release people who are parole-approved, but they just simply haven’t done that. And every time there’s an active coronavirus case, the unit needs to be locked down, which leads to a form of administrative segregation that can be mentally and emotionally deteriorating.”

The outbreak of the virus led Greedo to be sent from Fort Stockton to Middleton, a transfer facility built in the ’90s to ease overcrowding. These fortresses are known for their notoriously brutal conditions — constant fighting, racial tensions and blistering heat. Meals often consist of peanut butter sandwiches and prunes.

Greedo watched the protests in support of racial justice that swept the country this summer, but he cites the importance of also remembering the victims of mass incarceration in a nation with 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but 22 percent of its prisoners.

“For the first time, people are really seeing that racism is for real,” Greedo says. “The mistreatment over racism and what the police have always done is finally being exposed. But people don’t see what the police do to people’s lives in prisons. Or the court system that has completely stopped. They’ve used [the coronavirus] as yet another way to discipline us.”

Rough beginnings

In some respects, it’s merely a bleaker version of the reality that has plagued most of his adult life. Greedo didn’t find success until the age of 30 largely because of his inability to avoid the carceral traps common to Watts’s poverty-stricken but creatively fertile Jordan Downs Projects. When Greedo was a newborn, his father died in a motorcycle accident, which set in motion a chain of events that led to him spending most of his youth shuttling between his mother and his grandparents, including stints in St. Louis, Sacramento and Kansas City, Mo. In Los Angeles County, he lived in Compton and Gardena, and weathered various bouts of homelessness before he eventually found a semblance of stability in Watts.

“As soon as you enter Watts, everything changes,” Greedo says of the World War II-era housing project where the film “Menace II Society” was set. “You’re seeing stray dogs in packs of 10 and people pushing baskets. You’re seeing babies, Mexicans, Blacks, elementary schools, smokers, Lexuses, Beamers and Benzes, people swerving in traffic. You’re hearing 10 different songs . . . five Greedo songs . . . old school music . . . people playing dominoes on the corners, checkers, chess. Everybody’s smoking, people are cooking. It’s an energy you can’t find nowhere else,” he says. “There’s something in the water . . . something in the mud.”

After dropping out of high school, Greedo worked a series of dead-end retail jobs until his girlfriend became pregnant. Desperate to feed his infant daughter, the teenager turned to the streets. For the most of the next decade, he’d be in and out of jails and prisons for nonviolent crimes, mostly drug dealing, burglary and firearms possession. Under his previous alias, Greedy Giddy, he recorded a half-dozen mixtapes filled with scattershot brilliance; they earned him regional buzz that would dissolve as soon as he’d disappear back into the penal system.

Something changed after his final 2016 arrest. Rechristening himself 03 Greedo (a nod to 103rd Street, which runs through the heart of Watts), he conjured a hellhound requiem that changed the trajectory of his life. Greedo first performed that wounded hymn, “Mafia Business,” at the funeral of his neighborhood acquaintance Raymond “Mafia Ray” Arnold. It quickly became his breakout hit: a Watts voodoo spiritual that was fundamentally hip-hop, but regionally agnostic, as though it was snatched from in an ancient book of the dead.

Greedo has alternately described his songs as “emo music for gangbangers” and “pain music that’s popping,” but it goes deeper. It’s reminiscent of Future or Chief Keef in its blend of savage concrete ferocity and tender reconstructed experimental pop. His voice is a flimsy nasal honk, yet it radiates an undeniable sense of strength and feeling: a paper plane somehow making it across the Pacific.

The boundaries of his sound were best defined on his 2016 breakout mixtape “Purple Summer,” where on “Molly,” Greedo reversed a Lana Del Rey sample, interpolated Rick James and moaned a violent paean to ecstasy — half lethal drug lord, half euphoric consumer.

“Greedo created a new sound for L.A.,” says Ron-RonTheProducer. “Nobody here was doing the melodic auto-tune rap before him. He was the first to really bust out and go mainstream with it, and it’s been a huge influence on the city. He even paved the way for artists like [Compton’s] Roddy Ricch.”

Despite being locked up for the last two summers, Greedo’s influence remains omnipresent. It’s not merely the old music, which has become firmly cemented in the West Coast canon, nor is it even the post-incarceration collaborations with super-producers DJ Mustard and Kenny Beats. In the same way that Young Thug, a similarly brilliant mutant synthesizer, spawned his own school in Atlanta, there is a post-Greedo class of Los Angeles. See 2019’s song of the summer candidate, “Vintage and Adventurous” from South Central’s Conradfrmdaaves or this season’s “Scandalous” from Compton’s Wallie the Sensei.

“Greedo is our ghetto treasure. He’s so important to music where I come from because it’s so relatable. It taught me that I didn’t have to sugarcoat anything,” says Wallie, who appears on the “Load It Up” track “Backstage.” “When he came it out, it felt like a godsend — finally somebody gave me something to listen to. It’s crazy that he’s still making noise from the pen.”

Greedo’s latest project finds him further refining “creep music” — a haunting, hyper-melodic form of street rap necromancy. These are more spells than songs, full of backwards samples and croaking effects that bleed into the subconscious.

“It’s supposed to sound like a horror movie for people where I’m from,” Greedo says of “Load it Up.” “[We] are the most emotional people. We’ve been heartbroken — whether it’s by an eviction notice, your daddy stepping out on you, your mama being on drugs, your girl having a baby with your brother, or just losing your closest friends. This sounds like that.”

The “Vol. 1” in the album’s full title hints at the deep vault of songs amassed between Greedo and Ron-Ron, but Greedo remains unwaveringly hopeful that in-person studio sessions could resume before those reserves are depleted. Shortly before the pandemic struck, Greedo retained a prominent Houston attorney, Morris Overstreet, a former Potter County prosecutor and the first African American attorney ever elected to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

While the details of Greedo's case are relatively straightforward, the circumstances in which the drugs and guns were discovered may not hold up under scrutiny. The official reason given for the vehicle stop was that the car had lingered too long in a left-hand passing lane. But according to Greedo, footage from the incident reveals them using it for its lawful purpose. Upon pulling over the vehicle, officers claimed to smell marijuana, but none was found. Using that as probable cause, the deputies opened up the trunk, where they found the drugs.

What's in question is the competence of Greedo's first two attorneys: the first, a public defender; the second, a local attorney hired after Greedo became famous. Neither followed the example of Greedo's co-defendant, Justin Scott, whose representatives filed a motion contesting what they believed to be an illegal stop, search and seizure. Unwilling to fight it out in court, the Potter County district attorney's offered Scott probation. But neither of Greedo's original lawyers attempted to question the legality of the proceedings, instead leading him to believe that federal agents were about to pick up the case if he didn't accept a 20-year plea bargain.

“It's unconscionable that any lawyer wouldn't pursue all avenues prior to agreeing to a deal,” Overstreet says. “Even if he had been convicted of the crime, you have to give your client a chance to win on appeal by filing a motion saying that the stop wasn't lawful in the first place. We’re arguing that the other counsel's performance fell below an objective standard and that the results would have been different had those standards been met.”

As Greedo waits for a reversal of fortune, his privileges were recently restored. During those 40 days of confinement he says he wrote constantly, adding to the thousands of doomed but unbreakable stanzas that he’s scrawled into a notepad amidst the clatter of a prison dorm. There was plenty of time to think about his 15-year-old daughter and the stress of not being able to be there for her; the perils of fame that destroyed relationships with family and friends; and the albums that he plans to release as soon as possible. (Those include planned full-length collaborations with Ty Dolla Sign and Hit Boy, and trilogies with DJ Mustard and Ron-Ron.)

Staying positive

When he calls again in mid-August, he sounds more positive than before. It’s hard to see any upside in the world, but he expresses a certain ambivalence in knowing that he’s not exactly missing much on the outside.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” he wheezes. “These are tricky times. I ain’t really in no rush to come home . . . it sounds like the world is f---ed up.”

Of course, there are many more dreams about what he will do whenever he can come home. Should his review be granted, he could theoretically be home as soon as next year; if that doesn’t happen he hopes to win parole by 2023 at the latest. His imagination never stops churning about both the albums that still need to be recorded, the next stage of his career where he evolves beyond street music and finally shows the world his truest self.

“Who I really want to be is what I’m always working towards,” he says, somewhat enigmatically. “Never fold, never bend is my motto, but I didn’t think of that just because it sounded good. Something I’ve noticed about myself is that nothing ever phases me to the point where I can’t operate . . . it only seems to make me go harder.”