How Studio Engineers Keep Making Music While Artists Are Incarcerated

Engineers who've worked with Drakeo the Ruler and Gucci Mane told VICE about the responsibility and challenge of working with incarcerated artists.
August 13, 2020, 1:46pm
Navin Upamaka, engineers working in studio
Photo by Brandon Dull

On July 30, Shoreline Mafia released Mafia Bidness, the L.A. group's major label debut featuring artists Drakeo the Ruler and 03 Greedo, who are both currently incarcerated; Drakeo is awaiting trial in Los Angeles, and Greedo is currently serving a 20-year sentence in Texas, eligible for parole next year after being denied in June.

"One of the most important things is being able to have the money to be on the phone when you're in jail. That shit costs a lot of money," said Navin Upamaka, an L.A.-based engineer who mixed Drakeo’s Thank You For Using GTL, which refers to Global Tel Link, the inmate phone service used in Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles. Upamaka worked with Drakeo on everything he's released since 2017's Cold Devil. "Drakeo's spending $1,500, $2,000 a week just to get that stuff done."

When artists are incarcerated, releasing music is a way to communicate with the outside world; either via a trove of unrecorded material or verses filed from jail. Their intent varies; sometimes they're trying to keep the market familiar with their work; to build a buzz before returning home, or to get thoughts off their chest while locked up.

Sean Paine is familiar with the process. The engineer, producer and rapper engineered Gucci Mane's music in the three-year stretch from 2013 to 2016, while Gucci was serving time in the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, Indiana. During this period, Paine said his job was to keep Gucci's name alive, estimating that he worked on approximately 500 Gucci records, with an edict to release at least one mixtape a month. Doing so often required being creative with the source material.

"Sometimes there would be muted vocals underneath that we didn't put on that song," Paine said. I would unmute those, and make that a hook to some other song that wasn't completed. And then reach out to people he usually does music with, [as well as] people he didn't do music with, like Post Malone, Riff Raff, Lil B, people with a different market."

While Gucci was in prison, Paine would take trips to Los Angeles to work with Chief Keef for the Big Gucci Sosa mixtape, and Fred Durst, who received a Gucci feature but lost the hard drive when his house burned down in a California wildfire, Paine said.

Paine was inspired by Shyne, who recorded "For the Record" off of Godfather Buried Alive while serving a 10-year sentence for the infamous 1999 shooting in a New York nightclub.

"He did a whole verse. It was hard," Paine said.

"That brought up the idea in my head to have Gucci record over the phone." Only a handful of Gucci records were recorded this way, Paine said; the first being the intro on the C.N.O.T.E. collaboration mixtape, C.N.O.T.E. Vs. Gucci.

"You just do what you do and put it together," Paine said. "Same situation when somebody passes away. I lost a cousin, Sauce Pack, I got a couple features from major artists that I'm gonna make him have a song with them."

The majority of Gucci's records were assembled from unreleased songs and old session files, which often contain unused takes and ad-libs that can be repurposed. When Fetty Wap released "Trap Queen," Paine said, he reached out to Fetty Wap's team to say Gucci Mane should be on a remix, given one of Gucci's many nicknames is Wop. When Paine received the song, which is 145 beats per minute, he found a verse recorded at 137, and retuned the verse's speed to match the new beat. "Sometimes stuff comes out actually crazier because that wasn't meant for that, but it fits in the pocket different," Paine said. "It works out, in some instances, even better than it would have on the original."

Regardless of intent, the process of making music for artists while they're incarcerated is a complicated endeavor for their engineers and producers. When artists are in the studio, they can hear a high-fidelity version of the near-final product and offer suggestions and edits. But when they're incarcerated, the final mix is largely up to the engineer, making them responsible for presenting the artist's voice in the best light.

"Having Drakeo trust me [and producer Joog] before the jail stuff helped with that," Upamaka said. "He's trusting you for stylistic choices, and to make it flow to where it feels not necessarily like a real song, but enough to where people are not going to turn it off right away," he said.

Both Paine and Upamaka emphasized one key detail when recording an artist from a jail or prison phone: having the studio phone plugged directly into a receiver or digital audio workstation, to eliminate further corrosion to the sound.

"When he initially told me we had a bunch of songs ready to go over the phone, we want you to mix them, I was like, 'Oh shit. This is going to be a pretty daunting task.'" Upamaka said.

As Upamaka explained, the normal principles of mixing don't work quite the same when the artist is recording from a telephone, which captures a tiny fraction of the audio spectrum recorded on a studio microphone. When the artist records from the studio, Upamaka said, equalizing a vocal might take fifteen to twenty minutes; when equalizing a vocal from jail, it can take more than an hour.

"You've got to be creative in different ways, really submit to the fact it's not going to sound like a normal song. You want to feel like you're in jail, with him, there. Almost like you're having a conversation with him on the phone, but still have it be a song," Upamaka said.

There is also the frustration of recording from jail, unable to recreate the rhythm of a studio, which Upamaka said was the biggest barrier, especially with the singular style of Drakeo the Ruler.

"He's not a traditional rapper, he's not exactly always on beat," Upamaka said. "He finds his flow and slithers in between the beat. It's a tactical process even though it sounds like it's nonchalant and he really doesn't give a fuck. That's why he's coming in on those places, but he's very calculated about it." Once Joog figured out a workflow which allowed Drakeo to hear the beat without any delay or the echo of his voice, the workflow became much smoother. And even though the audio quality was less than desirable, the work felt more important than ever, Upamaka said.

"You really feel like you're proofreading a novel or something, because there's definitely a message he's trying to get across."