Rap’s Well-traveled Path to Prison

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It’s a ritual that seems to play out at least once a year in the rap community: A top star faces a criminal charge, and more often than not, is locked up at the height of their wealth and fame.

Lil Wayne is the latest example. On Tuesday, he is to be sentenced on a weapons charge, and will likely face one year behind bars. He is arguably rap’s most popular figure, a Grammy-winning, top-selling superstar whose clever rhymes permeate through rap, pop and more recently, rock.

He joins a long list of rap stars who have gotten caught up in the criminal justice system; perhaps the most prominent prison poster child was Tupac Shakur, who went to jail in 1995 as he was on the verge of superstardom. It begs the question: After all these years, why are hip-hop’s top stars still finding themselves on the path to prison?

“People seem to think they are smarter than the system or that person’s fate is not their fate,” says Chaka Zulu, co-founder of Ludacris’ Disturbing tha Peace label. “Some people say, ‘Oh no, that’ll never happen to me. He just got caught slippin.'”

T.I., another one of rap’s top sellers, reported to a federal prison in 2009 for his conviction on weapons charges. He spent time in an Arkansas prison and is currently at a halfway house in Georgia.

Some thought rappers would learn from T.I.’s situation, which once again proved that the top stars of hip-hop aren’t above the law.

Apparently, the lesson has not been learned.

“Hopefully this isn’t a cycle that next year from now we’re seeing our top rappers in jail,” Elliott Wilson, founder of the hip-hop Web site RapRadar.com, says. “Ultimately, it is a black eye to the culture I’m passionate about. Hopefully, the artists of tomorrow won’t make the same mistakes as the ones of today.”

While rap is a genre borne of the gritty streets, and drugs and violence have long played a prominent role, many rap stars find themselves facing their greatest — and sometimes their first — legal hurdles after they become successes, like Lil Wayne.

Besides his scheduled court date in New York next week, he is also scheduled for trial in Arizona on March 30 on felony drug possession and weapons charges stemming from a January 2008 arrest at a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint. He has pleaded not guilty in that case.

“The whole rockstar fantasy is to be the bad boy, to do whatever and not get caught. These artists are reaching a level of fame, but dealing with real consequences for their actions,” Wilson says.

Lil Wayne joins a group of rappers with legal woes over the past year, from Gucci Mane to Soulja Boy to popular music producer Shawty Redd, who faces a charge of murder in Georgia.

In the history of hip-hop, other popular rappers such as Slick Rick, Shakur, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Remy Ma, Beanie Sigel, Shyne, Mystikal and C-Murder have spent a few months to several years in prison. Snoop Dogg was acquitted of murder; Diddy faced jail time but he was acquitted on bribery and weapons charges in 2001 stemming from a club shooting. His protege, Shyne, wasn’t as lucky and was convicted in the same case and sentenced to 10 years; he was recently deported after his release from prison.

In January, Soulja Boy was given a year of probation on obstruction after he fled from a Georgia vacant house. Shawty Redd was arrested on New Year’s Day and charged with murder after a man was slain in his home. Ja Rule still faces a gun possession charge from 2007.

Gucci Mane spent time in jail on a few occasions, most notably for hitting a promoter in the head with a pool cue in 2005 and for violating his probation stemming from his assault conviction. In 2005, he was jailed on a murder charge, but the charges were dropped because of lack of evidence. He was also arrested for possession of firearm, marijuana and DUI.

Now, Gucci Mane is back in prison again to serve a six-month term after a probation violation last year. The rapper, whose recent album “The State vs. Radric Davis” released in December while he was behind bars, acknowledged that his fast life set him up for failure.

“It was just apart of my life,” the rapper said, speaking via telephone from the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, where he is currently serving a six-month term. “My relationship with drugs. My bad decisions. My relationship with partying too much. It was like a friendship I didn’t want to let go.”

Gucci Mane warns others to avoid his fate.

“Don’t keep bumping your head against the wall,” he says. “It’s a serious situation. It’s so many things that happens behind these walls. Think about how to avoid situations so you won’t have to come in here.”

Every time Zulu hears about a rapper getting arrested, he quickly alerts several of his artists — including Ludacris — about how to avoid making the same mistake.

For Zulu, it’s a conversation that has come too frequent.

“We try to prepare them for different scenarios,” he says. “You look at it from every aspect on whether you can get out of it or not. Sometimes you meet it head on or alleviate it.”

Zulu says he’s not sure if hip-hop’s top stars will ever stop getting into trouble. He does suggest rappers should take note from Jay-Z, who has steered clear from trouble with the law after being sentenced to three years probation in 1999 for stabbing a record producer at a Manhattan nightclub. Now a global superstar is held in high esteem and has even performed for President Obama at his inauguration.

“It’s about choice,” Zulu says. “As much as Jay-Z talks about street life in his music, he’s making more strategic and more better decisions into those situations now. Let’s learn from the good and bad.”

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