Courtesy of the artist
Drakeo The Ruler.
Courtesy of the artist
Drakeo The Ruler.
Courtesy of the artist
On Nov. 4th, 2020, Drakeo The Ruler was released from prison after a four-year saga beset by institutional corruption and by what Drakeo viewed as a personal vendetta from Los Angeles' District Attorney, Jackie Lacey. While many in the city were celebrating the early projections suggesting Vice President Joseph Biden would be elected the 46th President, the rapper born Darrell Caldwell was cheering on progressive prosecutor George Gascón, who had just defeated Lacey in a race for Los Angeles County District Attorney.
Drakeo's case was rumored to have been watched carefully by Lacey and the Los Angeles Police Department, who, Drakeo claimed, didn't "like to see someone like me make it." The accusation is cynical, but Drakeo and his team considered the timing of his release to be more than a coincidence, given Lacey was now on her way out.
Once Gascón was declared the victor, Drakeo entered a plea agreement with the newly lame-duck District Attorney's office and was freed for time served. "Drakeo has been put through hell over the last three years," his attorney, John Hamasaki, said in a statement provided to Pitchfork. "After one day of trial the prosecutors approached us about a time served offer. Drakeo will be home to his family in the next few hours. It is a good day for Drakeo and rap music." Drakeo departed Men's Central Jail, put on a Gucci turtleneck, and headed straight to the studio.
Drakeo's fame, skill on the mic and notoriety only grew while in prison. His first album of 2020, Thank You For Using GTL, was recorded exclusively via prison phone, and the title is in reference to the automated service that interrupts calls from jail every few minutes. The album is perhaps the best jailhouse account ever recorded, and vaulted Drakeo's style and story to areas outside of California that had previously not known his name. It's a stirring, heartbreaking, defiant work, built upon Drakeo's trust that the truth will prevail.
The last time Drakeo left prison, in 2017, he recorded his now-seminal Cold Devil in just 10 days. This time around, he's recorded two mixtapes to celebrate his freedom, the first of which, We Know the Truth, is out today (and embedded just above) – his birthday. The mixtape is a staggering achievement, at times in direct conversation with Cold Devil (like on "Big Dog"), while serving as a chilling reflection on his years spent locked up ("Lil Boosie"). Throughout, Drakeo's casual flows make the whole thing feel freestyled, if the intricacy and cleverness of his lines weren't so impressive.
We caught up with the rapper to discuss his first days out, the specter of more jail time, and why many rappers in LA seem to have fallen quiet, now that he's returned. (He addresses the latter throughout the new tape, asking why peers who stayed silent during his darkest days are now shouting him out on Twitter.) Drakeo is known for his West Coast drawl and signature nervous rapping, in which he skitters around the minimalist beat with the energy of a pinball. "It's crazy," he explained to NPR Music with his signature giggle. "I can't wait to keep on going. That's all I'm going to say."
Will Schube, NPR Music: Is it possible to describe how you were feeling on your first day out?
Drakeo The Ruler: I don't know... It's kind of weird. It didn't really feel real at all. I was still overwhelmed by the fact that the day before, I was in jail. It got a little easier once I got in the studio, because that's like home to me. The booth was comfortable, but there was something lingering, it was just weird because I couldn't believe it. Imagine being in jail all that time and finally you're just mysteriously a free man. After three years.
Were you scared that it was some sort of dream, and you'd be heading back to jail?
Yeah the first few days had me really paranoid. I was just constantly over my shoulder asking myself, 'What's going on right now? Are they going to come get me?' It was a bad dream for a minute. All I kept thinking about was jail, jail, jail.
Did you have a feeling that if Jackie Lacey was voted out that you'd maybe have a chance to be free?
Yeah, for sure. That was always the mindset.
What do you think was, as you've alluded to, so threatening about you to Lacey's office and the LAPD?
I was successful and I was from the streets. They don't like to see someone like me make it, it goes against how they operate. For someone like me to get out of the streets, it just goes against everything that they stand for. I believe that 100 percent. There are all these laws that seem backwards and specific but they threw 'em all at me. They just didn't like the person I am and decided to make an example out of me for everyone else. I was kind of like a warning.
How nice is it talking on the phone and not getting interrupted by GTL every two minutes?
[Laughs] It's pretty cool. They have my phone tapped anyways, though it is a nice feeling.
Have you had to switch up the way you operate since you got out,to make sure that you stay out of trouble?
Oh yeah, for sure. I have my ID on me all the time, I have bodyguards, just general precautions like that. Plus, I'm always in the studio. I don't really go out like that anymore. The only good thing about this coronavirus s*** is that I'm not even tempted to go anywhere. I just stay in the studio. There's nothing to do unless I'm going to the mall, s*** like that. But other than that, nah, there ain't really too much to do, so that makes it easier.
What was it like having rap fans in the LA community on your side and vocal about getting you free?
Yeah, that was cool. The people who were keeping my name on the streets were the ones that actually cared. You figure out who's on your side when you're locked up. Most of these rappers wasn't f****** posting about me, trying to get my story heard, trying to get their audience behind my freedom. They didn't want me to get up.
Did you have any catch-up time to see what else was going on in LA and in rap? Or did you just hop back in and continue your style?
I was trying to follow along while locked up, but not too many people were making big moves while I was gone. Roddy Rich had some good s***, Blueface got big, too. Shoreline Mafia has been making noise, but it felt like everyone else was just floating along and not making any noise. It seemed kind of dead, that's what people told me. So when I came back, it was kind of easy. I've been peeping everything, I've been watching and studying. The younger rappers still look to me for advice and give me respect, which I appreciate. It feels like everything's a little bit quiet now.
Why do you think some other LA rappers are coming at you?
I think a lot of people are mad because I accomplished a lot that they couldn't, while sitting in a cell. Like, how did I stay more relevant than you while in prison? Then, I got out of jail, and I did more than these people in the first two days than they do in a while. I got features that they couldn't get. They feel like I'm going to be taking money out of their pockets. Then, when I drop my tape, all the attention is going to stay on me. It's been on me from the first day I got locked up until the day I got out, but I guess now they're worried. Their streams are gonna go down. I guess their thought process is if they beef with me or something, it'll make them relevant and it won't take away from what they got going on. But that's not my fault.
Do you see yourself becoming an advocate for younger kids facing a similar fate that you did?
I'm not trying to be motherf****** Martin Luther King or some s*** [laughs]. I'll look out for people, but there are just certain things I can't get involved in because I'm still not 100 percent out of the woods. I still need to make sure I get out clean.
What kept you going when you were locked up in solitary?
All I would think about is music and seeing my son. I spent a lot of time thinking about if I'd actually ever get out and how long it would take. It was hard to think about anything else.