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Rap Was My Lifeline in Prison

I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours rapping, talking about rap, and listening to cassette tapes when I was an inmate. Without Ol' Dirty Bastard, Kool Keith, and Bootsy Collins, I really would have gone insane.

by Bert Burykill
Mar 21 2014, 11:00am

Drawing via Flickr user Jeff Jacobson-Swartfager

Over the past few years, I’ve used this column to expound upon the many ways inmates pass the days locked up in the stinkin’ clink-clink. The boredom is severe for some, 'cause they don’t have any hobbies or interests—they’re stuck with most primal of activities, such as jerkin’ the giant gherkin, which luckily doesn’t take much skill or brainpower. Dudes in prison are the only remaining people in the world who read pornos. They stare at pictures, digesting each image slowly. (At least they're flexing their imagination.) Then there are those who fancy themselves intellectuals—they devote much of their time to reading and writing. There are also the dudes who work out all day, every day, and come out of prison looking like they’ve shoved snakes inside their arms. Then there are the inmates who make their time inside all about music.

I’ve met quite a few guys who are basically illiterate but can recite whole rap songs flawlessly. Some have awe-inspiring and enviable memories, while others study their asses off by writing down lyrics and reciting them until they are forever imprinted on their young, sponge-like brains. Dudes often start in their teens by copying popular raps and spitting them like their own inventions; in their 20s they’ll start writing their own raps, often in the precise cadence, voice, and style of whatever popular rapper (Jay-Z, Nas, 50 Cent) they jock. I’ve seen lots of guys in their 30s—my age—who have a bunch of their own songs, or at least verses, that they’ve perfected. Lots of the older guys are ridiculously well seasoned and have whole catalogues of memorized songs from all the years they’ve spent in prison—at that point they’ve put in so many hours listening, writing, and rapping that they sound legit as shit.

Even though things are changing and some prisons are letting inmates use MP3 players, in some states, including New York, the only way guys can listen to music is on cassette tapes. When I was upstate, we were limited to 25 tapes per inmate, a rule that was strictly enforced in most prisons—for a music-obsessed cracker like me, it was extremely important to select the right repertoire of bangers. There are some companies in Harlem, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens that put out catalogues full of mixtapes strictly for prisoners; when you do the math, there’s something close to 70,000 inmates locked up in New York State at any given time and around 12,000 on Riker’s Island alone, which means there is a pretty sizable market for these tapes. The last time I was in jail, Meek Mill’s Dreamchasers was everywhere. When I was inside, I ordered my tapes from a California company that supplies the whole country’s inmate population.

It’s not exactly iTunes, but I got Bootsy Collins’s Back in the Day: The Best of Bootsy and Zapp & Roger’s All the Greatest Hits for five bucks apiece, and I played those two tapes hundreds of times—Zapp’s beat-centric songs played in the background while I wrote thousands of pages. My other favorites included Kraftwerk’s Computer World, Redman’s Dare Iz a Darkside, Kool Keith’s Spankmaster, Parliament’s Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, Larry Graham and Graham Central Station’s Greatest Hits, the Ohio Players’ Greatest Hits, and Leaders of the New School’s T.I.M.E. The prices in these catalogues vary a lot, and the companies really take advantage of inmates on occasion—I once paid $22 for Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Nigga Please, but I felt like I absolutely needed some ODB in my life at the time, and I got hundreds of plays out of that tape, which helped soothe me on the most unbonerable of days.

Over the years, I met some guys I bonded with over music and rapping, and for the few months we were in the same lockup we’d exchange tapes and walk around the yard testing out raps we had just written. When we were in the same dorm it was like a weird middle-school sleepover where we were sitting on one of our bunks geeking out over music all night and trading verses. During my time inside I worked out, played sports, watched TV, talked on the phone, played cards, and read—but some dudes were ALL music. They wrote down everything, and they seriously thought of prison as a school where they’d learn how to rap.

Some of the best rappers I’ve ever seen in my life come from jail, and their amazing abilities are largely due to the amount of time they've had to practice. That said, it always blows my mind how many people completely waste their time in jail and prison. I feel like a moron 'cause I didn’t get more accomplished. I penned dozens of songs and wrote enough to fill up a couple books, but in the outside world I’ve failed to translate what I created in there into something worthy. I guess the same can be said for all the clowns that memorized every Young Jeezy song and even replicated his voice.

I just recently learned about Rap Genius and the way that site lets rap fans obsessively annotate rap lyrics—that’s exactly what dudes in prison need to do. They’re talking and arguing about rappers and verses and beefs and individual lines 90 percent of the time anyway—imagine what they could do if they had access to personal computers and the internet. I just got verified on Rap Genius, and I’m going to try to speak for all the inmates I’ve known and bring the knowledge I got thanks to my years being locked up.

Right now there are hundreds of thousands of men and women behind bars who are dreaming that they’ll be the next rapper to blow up after coming fresh out of the clink-clink with rhymes filling up notebook after notebook. I know what that’s like—I never felt more productive in lockup than when I had just finished writing a song, and I never felt more relaxed than when I was lying on my back listening to Bootsy’s Vanish in Our Sleep. Prison is awful, but imagining prison without music—fuckkkkk…

Bert Burykill is the pseudonym of our prison correspondent, who has spent time in a number of prisons in New York State. He tweets here.