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Drakeo is a rising star in LA's rap scene. He spent the last 33 months in jail, so his latest album, titled "Thank You For Using GTL," was recorded entirely over the phone lines of a prison telecom company called - you guessed it - GTL. That company and its competitors make up a controversial industry. The biggest prison phone service providers are the subject of a class-action lawsuit for price fixing. Frannie Kelley follows the money using Drakeo's story and songs as a map.
FRANNIE KELLEY, BYLINE: Drakeo's album opens with a recording of the recording.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTRO")
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: To consent to the monitoring or recording of this call, please press one after the tone.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)
KELLEY: And it proceeds in similarly meta fashion, pitting reality against entertainment and repurposing the repartee between Drakeo and his producer, Joog.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GTA VI")
JOOGSZN: Man, free Drakeo. He ain't do nothing wrong (laughter). Sheesh (ph).
DRAKEO THE RULER: Damn, like that, Joog? Can you fly the hook back in now, Joog? You must think this Grand Theft Auto, huh?
KELLEY: Drakeo's given name is Darrell Caldwell. And in July of last year, he was found innocent of murder and attempted murder.
DRAKEO THE RULER: Nothing. It's all acquittals.
KELLEY: The jury hung on two other charges based on California penal codes that allow active gang members to be charged for crimes committed by other gang members.
DRAKEO THE RULER: You don't have to be involved. You don't have to know nothing. You just have to be a gang member. But then the twist is that my rap group is my gang. Come on, bro.
KELLEY: That's right. The LA County district attorney contends that Drakeo's musical collaborators, The Stinc Team, constitute a gang. During his trial, the prosecution tried to use his lyrics and music videos against him. The jury didn't buy it, but the DA has decided to retry Caldwell on the two charges.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACKFLIP OR SUMN")
DRAKEO THE RULER: (Rapping) I beat the murder and the other five attempts. But you ain't do it, though. That's not the point. Ain't do no telling, how'd you make it out that joint?
KELLEY: Drakeo and his teams - both legal and musical - had been confident he'd win his retrial and planned to get back to work, says his producer, Joog.
JOOGSZN: We had a bunch of songs that he had already wrote that we were just basically waiting for him to get out to record.
KELLEY: But the retrial was postponed, then delayed by the pandemic. With no end in sight, Drakeo decided to stop waiting, wrote some new songs, and Joog stepped up.
JOOGSZN: He would rap over the phone. I'll find a beat in my stash 'cause I got a cool little stash for him that nobody else gets to hear.
KELLEY: Joog pointed his speaker at the phone and hooked the phone into his computer so he could record Drakeo.
DRAKEO THE RULER: Try to do everything in one take and try to match my voice with the beat.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOCIAL MEDIA CAN'T HELP YOU")
DRAKEO THE RULER: (Rapping) What's the message? Working with the team, might as well been a detective. Wanna pull me over 'cause he say my plate's from Texas. Talking like he know I got a stash, I feel threatened. I feel threatened.
KELLEY: Because everything had to happen over the phone, the project was expensive - from paying an engineer to clean up the phone tape to the cost of the GTL calls. I asked Drakeo how much money he spent on phone calls since he's been locked up.
DRAKEO THE RULER: Oh, man. It has to at least be in the hundreds of thousands. Yeah. It's crazy how much they charge to do this. I mean, I figured I would have to start making money after this - they taking all my money.
KELLEY: It's not just his money. Two companies, GTL and Securus, have contracts with 80% of the prisons and jails in the U.S. To win them, the companies agree to share their revenue with those institutions. Legally, the jail's piece of the money has to go into a fund that's used primarily for the education and welfare of the people confined there. Most facilities all over the country interpret primarily to mean 51%.
BIANCA TYLEK: But in the remaining 49%, they can spend on jail operations.
KELLEY: Bianca Tylek runs Worth Rises, an organization that, as it says on its website, works to expose the commercialization of the criminal legal system.
TYLEK: That could mean, as it has in many places, buying tasers and weapons and riot gear rather than any other type of services that may actually go to improving the conditions and lives of incarcerated people.
KELLEY: GTL declined to comment for this story. At the jail holding Drakeo, every minute of a local phone call cost 25 cents, which adds up to $3.75 for a 15-minute call. The LA County Sheriff's Department gets more than half of that.
TYLEK: The commission rate to LA County is 67 1/2%. So that means for every 15-minute phone call, the county takes home $2.53, and the corporation takes home the rest. They're partners in a profit-sharing agreement.
KELLEY: It goes deeper than that. In 2011, GTL was bought by American Securities for $1 billion. The private equity firm raised money for their purchase from numerous investors, including public pension funds. One of those was the LA Firemen and Police Pension.
TYLEK: That means that the Fire and Police Pension gets paid out. It's, like, a partial investor in GTL.
KELLEY: Which means that the very people who are prosecuting Drakeo are benefiting from his need to be in touch with people outside and his family's need to connect with him.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRESSURE")
DRAKEO THE RULER: (Rapping) Just keep your mouth shut. 'Cause the police always want to know your output.
KELLEY: One of the ways these firms wrested prison and jail contracts from the major telecoms in the 1990s was by promising extra security - monitoring calls, recording and archiving them, even inventing new surveillance technology. And Drakeo knows that.
DRAKEO THE RULER: I always just say, man, if they listening to all my conversations, I hope they get the hundred thousand times that I said I'm not guilty and didn't do nothing. They always leave those parts out.
KELLEY: Knowing that the monitors were hearing his new songs before anybody else got them, Drakeo had to weigh carefully what parts to leave in.
DRAKEO THE RULER: Before I came to jail I used to think, like, you can say whatever you want. I mean, that was kind of the whole point of me making a mixtape anyway. 'Cause I still should be able to say whatever I want.
KELLEY: By expressing himself through song, Drakeo says, he runs the risk of authorities again twisting his words. But this is his livelihood.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FICTIONAL")
DRAKEO THE RULER: Like, I'm not going to shoot up a school. I'm not going to shoot nobody in front of the police station. I'm not going to shoot nobody on camera. If I say something in a rap, it's not real, right? My mind is just - I have a lot of imagination. It's fiction. So I don't want my words misinterpreted or any of that misconstrued. If you're going to use my music against me, I ask that you use it the same way that you would...
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: This call is being recorded.
DRAKEO THE RULER: ...Country music, punk rock, metal, jazz - whatever - Blues - whatever. Treat rap the same way that you're going to treat any other genre. You're not going to hold Denzel Washington accountable for his role in "Training Day," so don't do the same thing with my music.
KELLEY: Drakeo says it was only when his reputation began to grow that law enforcement began targeting him.
DRAKEO THE RULER: At our concerts, it's not people that's from the hood - like, it it, but it's white people. That's what they want to hear. Like, that's what they want to hear. What am I supposed to do? That don't mean because they're listening to my music they're going to go back and carry guns and all this. Most of these kids are from the suburbs. Like, come on. But this what they want to hear. It's what I'm making. Yeah, it's kind of their fault. But, hey (laughter).
KELLEY: But, he says, there is something the kids from the suburbs can do. They can show up for his court dates.
DRAKEO THE RULER: And I just want people to see, like, the reality of the situation. Because it sounds like, oh, that can't be true, when you're looking at the blogs and stuff. But when you actually in court, you're like, wow. Like, these people are out their minds.
KELLEY: I asked Drakeo's producer, Joog, what he hoped "Thank You For Using GTL" might do for his friend.
JOOGSZN: It's like being on a boat in the middle of the ocean. Like, I could move the boat where I want to move it, but at the end of the day, the ocean's in control. So that - the ocean would be the system.
KELLEY: And everyone, from Joog and Drakeo to the LA County Sheriff's Department, is working it.
For NPR News, I'm Frannie Kelley.
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