What's The Connection Between Hip-Hop And Mass Incarceration? : Louder Than A Riot In this first episode, a mysterious conspiracy letter sends us on a journey to find out just how entangled hip-hop and mass incarceration have become over the last 40 years. We travel back in time to 1980s Atlanta with Killer Mike, 1990s Oakland with Too Short and beyond. From Reagan's war on drugs to a secret NYPD dossier of the world's biggest rappers, it's all connected — and, as Killer Mike says, "The proof's in the pudding."
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The Conspiracy Against Hip-Hop

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The Conspiracy Against Hip-Hop

The Conspiracy Against Hip-Hop

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SIDNEY MADDEN, HOST:

Heads up before we begin - this podcast is explicit in every way.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, HOST:

Back in the spring of 2012, somebody took the time to generate a Gmail account - username, John Smith; the address, industryconfessions@gmail.com. They composed the message with the subject line The Secret Meeting That Changed Rap Music and Destroyed a Generation and on April 24 at 1:30 p.m., hit send.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEYBOARD KEY CLICKING, WHOOSH SOUND EFFECT)

MADDEN: That unsigned letter claimed to document a secret meeting back in the 1990s that joined two of America's most powerful forces - the music industry and the prison industrial complex.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: It described a closed-door meeting with a small group of industry insiders held at a private residence on the outskirts of LA.

(SOUNDBITE OF INDISTINCT CHATTER)

CARMICHAEL: Now, the writer of the letter, he didn't know exactly why he was invited there at first.

MADDEN: But soon after everybody gathered, a man who only introduced himself by his first name started pitching the room.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS TAPPING)

MADDEN: He might have sounded something like this.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Unidentified Person, clearing throat) I'd like to share a very exciting opportunity with you all. Your companies have invested millions of dollars into building privately owned prisons, and your positions of influence in the music industry can actually impact the profitability of these investments.

CARMICHAEL: Now, at this point, the writer says everybody in the room looked at each other in confusion.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Unidentified Person) So it's now in your interest to make sure that these prisons remain filled. Your job - marketing music that promotes criminal behavior. And rap music, that's the music of choice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDEN: From NPR Music, this is LOUDER THAN A RIOT...

CARMICHAEL: ...Where we trace the collision of rhyme and punishment in America. In our first episode, we look at the interconnected rise of hip-hop and mass incarceration over the last 40 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDEN: And we ask, if the conspiracy letter is really fabricated, then where is the lie?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDEN: Now, when this conspiracy letter hit, it became something like hip-hop's Willie Lynch letter.

CARMICHAEL: Go Google that if you need to.

MADDEN: The first place it popped up was on the blog Hip-Hop Is Red. And after that, the Internet ran with it.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. And like most conspiracy theories, it addressed a lot of suspicions that hip-hop fans had had for years about, you know, how they felt the music went from pro-Black to, man, pro-crack.

MADDEN: OK, Rodney.

CARMICHAEL: (Laughter) I mean, you know, there was a lot of convo at the time around this topic.

MADDEN: And there still is, too. It's one of those conversations that always stays in the rotation. Right? It's like, who killed Tupac?

CARMICHAEL: Right. But here's my biggest issue with the letter. It's that it ultimately pins the world's largest prison population on hip-hop - our music, our culture, our so-called pathology, right? Now, sure, it blames white label heads for the industry's blaxploitation of rap. But ultimately, it makes us Black and brown folk the scapegoat - I mean, if that ain't the American way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: I'm Rodney Carmichael. I cover hip-hop at NPR Music, and I came up in an era where young Black men were constantly written off as an endangered species. And man, this intersection between rap and mass incarceration, it practically fueled the soundtrack of my generation.

MADDEN: I'm Sidney Madden. I also cover hip-hop over at NPR Music. And coming up in the peak of the blog era, right around the time this letter hit, it legitimized so many of the dots that rappers were connecting in their music anyway, you know? So we started making our own calls, asking our own questions. What did hip-hop heads make of this letter when they first heard it?

CARMICHAEL: You familiar with that letter?

MADDEN: Do you think there's any truth to that theory?

CARMICHAEL: Have you heard about this letter?

MADDEN: We tried to hit up every corner of the culture.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, we talked to rappers ranging from Casanova to Homeboy Sandman...

MADDEN: ...Journalists like Charlie Braxton and Kim Osorio...

CARMICHAEL: ...The scholar Regina Bradley, incarcerated podcaster Taxstone, even hip-hop radio legend Angie Martinez.

Do you entertain conspiracy theories much?

ANGIE MARTINEZ: It depends. Like what?

MADDEN: And everybody gave us a different answer.

REGINA BRADLEY: It's not real, folks. Like, it was - it's propaganda. It was propaganda that folks just took literally. They were just like, oh, there was this letter.

TAXSTONE: No, I didn't know about that. But it sounds bullshit to me. But you've got to remember, the gangsta lifestyle is always sold in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KIM OSORIO: There's truth in it - right? - in that I believe that there was an agenda. I don't know how effective it was, but someone had a meeting somewhere. But then again, I'm one of those conspiracy theorists.

BRADLEY: That actual letter, though, was used to amp folks up and add to the paranoia and anxiety around hip-hop culture and the transition and directions that it was going.

CHARLIE BRAXTON: After the LA riots, you saw an explosion of gangsta rap records and apolitical records being signed. Do you think that's an accident?

CASANOVA: I don't think there's any truth to that, whether or not the music was violent or not. Even a - soul music can make you want to do something. Whatever mood you in, it's going to bring it out. So if you sad, what's that, (singing) ooh, child, things are going to get easier - that'll make you do some things. Just being in the hood is a setup for jail.

HOMEBOY SANDMAN: The correlation between the image of people of color that is being pumped, you know, through the media and incarceration is such an obvious thing that I guess it just occurred to me without knowing about that letter.

MARTINEZ: You get big business people involved, and whatever they think is going to make them money is not necessarily for the benefit of the art form or the benefit of the people making the art form. Are you doing a podcast on that? 'Cause I would listen.

CARMICHAEL: Well, yeah, we kind of are (laughter).

MARTINEZ: OK. All right. I'm interested. I'm definitely interested.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDEN: Whether this meeting actually happened or not is not what this podcast is about.

CARMICHAEL: But the hype around this letter, fake news or not, it really tells us that the fear and the paranoia around how the criminal justice system disproportionately impacts Black people in this country is very real.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDEN: All conspiracy theories exist to offer a simple answer to a complicated question.

CARMICHAEL: And thinking about it years later, this theory - it brought up three big questions for us. No. 1, how did gangsta rap become so dominant by the 1990s?

MADDEN: No. 2 - did record label execs promote and exploit the worst stereotypes of Black America?

CARMICHAEL: And No. 3 - did the law use this perception of people to police not only Black America but hip-hop artists specifically?

MADDEN: These are questions that have been bubbling under the surface and that the culture has been debating for decades. And the latest boiling point came this past summer, when the fight for Black lives took center stage once again after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) We gon' be all right. We gon' be all right. We gon' be all right. We gon' be all right.

MADDEN: His death made the connections impossible to ignore. That's 'cause George Floyd was hip-hop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIRED OF BALLIN'")

TELA: (Rapping) Come on, Big Floyd.

MADDEN: Back in the '90s, Floyd was affiliated with DJ Screw's Screwed Up Click in Houston. Here he is rapping on an early Screw tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELA SONG, "TIRED OF BALLIN'")

GEORGE FLOYD: (Rapping) Fresh home from school, it's Big Floyd hollering, home for the weekend, then I flip back to college. Got to make bars straight feel me, down at the college, coaches like me...

MADDEN: And then, of all the responses to Floyd's murder, the one that really captured the nation's attention and sparked plenty of criticism wasn't a speech by a politician or even some activist on the ground in Minneapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KILLER MIKE: I didn't want to come, and I don't want to be here.

MADDEN: It was a speech by Killer Mike in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KILLER MIKE: I've got a lot of love and respect for police officers down to the original eight police officers in Atlanta that, even after becoming police, had to dress in a YMCA because white officers didn't want to get dressed with niggers. And here we are 80 years later, I watched a white officer assassinate a Black man. And I know that tore your heart out.

CARMICHAEL: Now, Killer Mike has never been one to bite his tongue when it comes to criticizing law enforcement. He even has a song about shooting a corrupt cop. But in this moment, he's brought onstage by the powerful in Atlanta to help keep the peace.

MADDEN: This impromptu speech made him a hero in the eyes of some but aligned him with the villains to others.

CARMICHAEL: At eight minutes and 18 seconds, Mike's speech, it lasted nearly as long as Derek Chauvin kept his knee on George Floyd's neck. And this whole time, you can hear Mike walking this tightrope between outrage and responsibility, between trying to cool people down but also empathizing with why they were so fired up in the first place.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KILLER MIKE: I'm mad as hell. I woke up wanting to see the world burn down yesterday because I'm tired of seeing Black men die.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: Now, when I sat down with Killer Mike in Atlanta, where we both grew up, it was six months before the George Floyd protests popped off. We had a whole different kind of conversation about police. Digging into our first big question, how gangsta rap became so dominant back in the day, we talked about what changed and what hip-hop was responding to at the time. And one of those things was the way Black and brown folk were being policed.

Well, Mike, thank you very much, man, for taking time out for us.

KILLER MIKE: Thank you for having me.

CARMICHAEL: Now, at 45 years old, Mike is just about the same age as hip-hop and the tipping point of mass incarceration in America. He was raised by his grandparents. But peep this; his father was a police officer.

KILLER MIKE: You know, what I learned from my father was the system. There's no disrespectful way to say, yes, sir; no, ma'am. If you see the police driving north, walk south. This is how you handle yourself at police.

CARMICHAEL: On the other hand, Mike's mom - man, she was a hustler, legal and illegal.

KILLER MIKE: The lessons I got from my mother was, this is how much it's worth. This is how much you chop up. This is what you sell it for. Don't work for another man. You can go out on the corner, and you can determine your own fate.

CARMICHAEL: Now, Mike doesn't like to be pigeonholed as a conscious rapper. I mean, he loves his weed and going to strip clubs with his wife. But, you know, he's never shied away from talking about politics in his raps, in his interviews, even out on the campaign trail.

You know, you were really kind of on the forefront of really looking at criminal justice and, I guess, how it intersects with our community historically, but also, you know, currently, especially in terms of rappers.

KILLER MIKE: Yeah, for this generation I'm on the forefront. I'd like to proudly announce that rap has been doing that since Day 1.

CARMICHAEL: So who do you count as the cats that you see following in their legacy?

KILLER MIKE: Ah, man. Shit, if you listen to Grandmaster and Furious Five, they were talking about the troubles of the world and the ills.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE SONG, "THE MESSAGE")

MADDEN: Yeah, this story has to begin with "The Message." It's only right.

CARMICHAEL: I know, right? I mean, like, every other kid I know from my era, Flash and the Furious Five - and it smacked me cold across the head when they dropped this joint in 1982.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MESSAGE")

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Rapping) I can't take the smell, can't take the noise. Got no money to move out. I guess I got no choice.

MADDEN: Back when "The Message" was released, there were a little over 400,000 people incarcerated in America. That's a fraction of what the total is today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MESSAGE")

GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE: (Rapping) Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge.

CARMICHAEL: The song was a cry for help, but it's really a condemnation. Black and brown folk in the South Bronx were close to the edge, man. And Reaganomics was not trickling down.

MADDEN: 'Cause that same year, in October of 1982, Ronald Reagan launched a war on drugs like America had never seen before.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONALD REAGAN: Good evening. Nancy's joining me because the message this evening is not my message but ours.

MADDEN: And in this speech, four years later, the Reagans doubled down with the Just Say No campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

R REAGAN: Drug abuse is not a so-called victimless crime. Drugs are menacing our society. They're threatening our values and undercutting our institutions. They're killing our children.

NANCY REAGAN: So to my young friends out there, say yes to your life. And when it comes to drugs and alcohol, just say no.

MADDEN: Reagan increased the size of federal drug control agencies, enacted mandatory minimums in sentencing and introduced America to the no-knock warrant. That's when the state and federal prison population really started ticking up. From 1980 to 1987, it increased 76%, reaching half a million people for the first time in history. At the time, Killer Mike was just 12 years old.

KILLER MIKE: We grew up in a little A-frame house - two bedroom, one bathroom, you know, about 800, 900-square-foot.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, Mike grew up right on the edge of the historically Black Collier Heights, sandwiched between prosperity and the projects.

KILLER MIKE: So my community was a true Black community because you had people like my grandparents, who were a nurse and a dump truck driver, and within three streets, I was right next to the largest Black real estate developer in the country. So I got a chance to see Black people in total. So all my heroes and villains were Black.

CARMICHAEL: Now, Mike is old enough to remember what life was like before the era of mass incarceration because his coming of age - it really coincided with the crackdown brought on by the war on drugs.

KILLER MIKE: '84, '85, '86, even '87, the cops were guys in blue uniforms. You know, they'd talk to you first, give you a firm talking-to, even take you home. '87 - I shot a bird at a cop. They put me in the car and took me home to my grandfather, had a firm talking-to.

By the time you get to '88, '89, '90, the cops went from being not quite Mayberry but still down homie enough that you could get a talking-to and a ride home - it turned into units like the Red Dog drug unit in which they came dressed like paramilitary forces. The cops who were on these forces looked like ex-track stars, basketball players and football players. And their game was to hunt.

CARMICHAEL: The Red Dogs - the local Atlanta name for the drug task force units that were popping up all across the country at this time.

Did you feel like we were targeted?

KILLER MIKE: Yes, absolutely, because we were.

CARMICHAEL: OK.

KILLER MIKE: We were. We were hunted by police. We were literally physically hunted. You'd be standing on the corner, drug squad would pull up, everybody would run.

CARMICHAEL: And that ain't the only thing that was changing. Just like Michelle Alexander spells out in "The New Jim Crow," the DEA even launched a propaganda campaign using mass media to hype the crisis. Suddenly, terms like crack whores and crack babies became racial dog whistles. Press and politicians, man, they all bought in.

MADDEN: But hip-hop told a different story. And Mike was listening.

KILLER MIKE: When Ice-T dropped "6 'N The Mornin'," that made the world make sense.

MADDEN: When "6 'N The Mornin'" dropped in 1987, it was a gangsta rap prototype. And notice who the antagonist in the song is, the police.

KILLER MIKE: (Rapping) Six in the morning, police at my door. Fresh Adidas squeaking across the bathroom floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "6 'N THE MORNIN'")

ICE-T: (Rapping) Out my back window, I make my escape - didn't even get a chance to grab my old school tape. Mad with no music...

KILLER MIKE: So before you had dope boys and that, like, we wanted to be a player. You know, a player was someone from the underworld - pimps, hustlers, gangsters, bank robbers. So man, he was saying what I was seeing around my mother's circle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "6 'N THE MORNIN'")

ICE-T: Fucking blue lights - LAPD. Pigs searched our car, their day was made - found an Uzi, .44 and a hand grenade

KILLER MIKE: He was describing it honestly, beautifully, poetically. But it was the most honest music. And the only music I had heard as honest was when I hung out with my grandpa and I listened to the blues. So I immediately understood, oh, this is my blues.

MADDEN: Yo, I love how he says that hip-hop is his blues.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDEN: OK. So back to our original question. Why did gangsta rap become so dominant?

CARMICHAEL: At its core, gangsta rap was a product of the drug war, a reaction to mass incarceration, not the other way around. And once the music started to mirror these certain stereotypes around Black criminality, I mean, it really became a easy sell to white America. And that meant records selling by the million.

MADDEN: Of course, it's more complicated than that, too. It's a constant balancing act between authenticity and commodification. And we're going to keep coming back to this idea throughout the series.

CARMICHAEL: It wasn't long before Killer Mike was rapping himself. Fast-forward 30 years and he's still at it. And he's at the top of his game right now.

MADDEN: And as time went on, the war on drugs never stopped either.

CARMICHAEL: But here's the irony of it, see; the crack epidemic hadn't even started when Reagan originally unveiled these policies in 1982. Drug crime was actually on the decline. But when crack did finally hit epidemic levels around '85, it legitimized the Reagan administration's drug war spending. And Killer Mike, man, he holds special contempt for the man who set the stage by launching this war on drugs in the first place.

KILLER MIKE: Every day, Reagan is made into a more sterile, worshiple (ph) version of the monster he actually was. Reagan was a racist. He was evil in every way. I celebrated his death then. I'll celebrate it now. And I wasn't too fond of Nancy either...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

N REAGAN: Just say no.

(SOUNDBITE OF KILLER MIKE SONG, "REAGAN")

KILLER MIKE: ...Because you're quite pompous to say just say fucking no when your husband has just sent jobs away, despair reigns. Well, just say no.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

N REAGAN: Just say no.

KILLER MIKE: Well, what the fuck are we saying yes to, bitch?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REAGAN")

KILLER MIKE: (Rapping) The end of the Reagan era, I'm, like, 11 or 12, old enough to understand that shit had changed forever. They declared the war on drugs like a war on terror. But what it really did was let the police terrorize whoever, but mostly Black boys...

MADDEN: Man, Mike strings together 30 years of history in a single verse.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, kind of like we trying to do in this episode. So let's keep it moving.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDEN: So the second question we've got to grapple with is this, did record execs promote and exploit the worst stereotypes of Black America?

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. So we decided to call up somebody who's talked about experiencing a certain kind of label pressure in the past.

TOO SHORT: Yo, what's up? My name is Too Short, from Oakland, Calif. - legendary emcee in the flesh, bitch.

CARMICHAEL: Yep, Mr. "Freaky Tales" himself, Too Short.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREAKY TALES")

TOO SHORT: (Rapping) These are the tales, the freaky tales. These are the tales...

CARMICHAEL: ...The rapper who celebrated pimps and the street hustle in all forms even before pioneering acts like NWA or Geto Boys.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREAKY TALES")

TOO SHORT: (Rapping) When I met Joan, I took her home. She was just like a doggy, all on my bone. I met another girl. Her name was Ann. All she wanted was to freak with a man.

CARMICHAEL: But to hear Too Short tell it, he contained multitudes.

TOO SHORT: I don't just make songs that go, yeah, bitch, suck my dick, I'm a pimp - I made songs that were about the city and about real-life situations that people could relate to and things that I was - that was coming out of me from Oakland, not just me in my brain, in some imaginary - writing poetry. I was writing the streets. I was writing the story of the city.

CARMICHAEL: Now, he created this Too Short persona, and it really was a mixture of a lot of stuff that he was seeing around him at the time, kind of like an audio version of a blaxploitation film, like "The Mack," filmed right there in The Town. But it was also about what he was seeing around him right there in the streets. And like a lot of independent artists coming up at the time, man, Short's early recordings, they were financed by the streets, too, specifically by the drug trade.

TOO SHORT: Crack had a lot to do with why Too Short succeeded because the crack money financed, basically, hip-hop nationwide. Before I signed to Jive Records, everything I ever did was funded by cocaine - everything. I can't go to Bank of America. I couldn't walk into Wells Fargo (laughter) and say, all I need is 5 grand to start the company. It was 50 banks that I knew of in Oakland, 50 different dudes that I knew that had the bag that might be interested in taking a small piece of their earnings and helping me start Too Short.

CARMICHAEL: And all that being said, Too Short, he didn't have to choose between being political or pimped out. I mean, for him, it was like two sides of the same cassette - literally.

TOO SHORT: So if you go listen to "Born To Mack," "Life Is... Too Short," "Short Dog's In The House," it takes a long time before a song with curse words comes on. That's because we were doing cassettes. And the cassette tape would be - the side A was clean, the side B was dirty. It was always that way. And then when CDs came out, we just abandoned that whole format. It's these same songs, the same sentiment, that I'm coming from the get and telling you what's really the fuck out here I'm seeing, and I'm giving you my advice and my version and my motivation to get over this shit, be above this shit. You know what I mean?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GHETTO")

TOO SHORT: (Singing) The ghetto.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, songs like "The Ghetto," they were kind of a staple in the late '80s 'cause no matter how street of a rapper you were, the music was always rooted in the sociopolitical critique of the times.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GHETTO")

TOO SHORT: (Rapping) Even though the streets are bumpy, lights burned out, dope fiends die with a pipe in their mouths. Old-school buddies not doing it right. Every day it's the same, and it's the same every night.

MADDEN: But things started to change after 1992, right around the time when Death Row Records started turning out hit after hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUCK WIT DRE DAY (AND EVERYBODY'S CELEBRATIN')")

SNOOP DOGG: (Rapping) Bow-wow-wow, yippy-yo, yippy-yay (ph). Doggy Dogg's in the motherfucking house. Bow-wow-wow, yippy-yo, yippy-yay. Death Row's in the motherfucking house. Bow-wow-wow...

MADDEN: Gangsta rap was exploding in the same era the idea of the quote superpredator was hitting the headlines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN DILULIO: A superpredator is a young juvenile criminal who is so impulsive, so remorseless that he can kill, rape, maim without giving it a second thought.

CARMICHAEL: Now, even before professor John Dilulio created the term in 1995, politicians were using the same rationale to create public policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: You must take back the streets. And you take back the streets by more cops, more prisons, more physical protection for the people.

MADDEN: That's then-Senator Joe Biden addressing Congress in 1993.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, the same way there's bipartisan support for criminal justice reform today, both sides were competing back in the early '90s to see who could be tougher on crime.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: And, Madam President, we have predators on our streets that society has, in fact - in part because of its neglect - created. They are beyond the pale, many of those people. We have no choice but to take them out of society.

CARMICHAEL: Joe Biden actually drafted the Senate's version of what would become the largest crime bill in the history of the U.S., the Clinton crime bill of 1994. Leaders on the left, they lined up in support of it.

MADDEN: But last year, Biden expressed regret for his role in turning this bill into a law. And in his current race for the White House, he's been calling for new reforms, like reducing mandatory minimums for drug crimes.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, but back in the '90s, man, that was a whole different time. I mean, even Ice Cube flipped the term predator to personify white America's worst nightmare, all while subverting those same racial stereotypes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PREDATOR")

ICE CUBE: (Rapping) I am the predator. Yo, I'm out. But I'll be back. Yo, I'm out.

CARMICHAEL: Before Dilulio coined it, Cube understood that predator was just America's code word for the young, Black and dangerous.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PREDATOR")

ICE CUBE: (Rapping) ...Billboard and the editor, here comes the predator. Yo, I'm out. But I'll be back.

CARMICHAEL: See, Dilulio's concept, it migrated from academia to pop opinion just in time to justify America's lock-'em-up mentality.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILLARY CLINTON: They are not just gangs of kids anymore; they are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators - no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first, we have to bring them to heel.

CARMICHAEL: Now, Hillary Clinton has since apologized for that comment in recent years, and so has Dilulio. He's even said that he wishes he never created the term superpredator.

MADDEN: But you know what? The impact of this bill and the term superpredator, it never really died - the stigma stuck. And today, there's 2.2 million people locked up, and about a third of them are Black. And keep in mind, Black people only make up about 13% of the country's whole population.

CARMICHAEL: And so, yeah, this entire time, mass media has been getting rich fueling these perceptions, which brings us back to our second question.

MADDEN: Did label heads intentionally promote and exploit the worst stereotypes of Black America?

CARMICHAEL: Now, this is where Too Short told us his story about a meeting with the head of Jive Records at the time - his label boss, Barry Weiss.

TOO SHORT: I remember Barry Weiss calling me and saying, you know, Death Row and Snoop Dog are kind of doing your style better than you, and they're being more successful than you because they're not holding back and they just being raunchy. Like, you know, you should probably just outdo them at what you do. And he was like, I feel like you should just make a dirty fucking album, just the dirtiest fucking album.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, this is Barry Weiss telling Too Short, who basically pioneered sexually explicit rap, that if he wants to move more records, man, he's got to get even dirtier.

TOO SHORT: And he was saying it like that. And I'm like, that's a good idea. It's like that - Too Short making a dirty, X-rated album. And I said immediately - the same conversation, didn't have to leave the table and come back with terms or nothing - I was like, well, you know, if I do that, I got to follow it up with the exact opposite, and I got to make a positive album. And it was going to be this motivational album that had songs that had no cursing, you know, motivational songs. And at one point, I remember how they would start pushing it off. I'm like, well, let's do the positive album. It's like, no, it's not time for that right now. We got to - this is the shit. Like, do this, do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: So, yeah, I mean, that's kind of the answer to our question, right? Did the recording industry push these kind of stereotypes? Well, yeah, in this case at least, they definitely did.

MADDEN: It's not exactly a conspiracy of pushing subliminal agendas to fill private prisons. But you know what? You see how market demand is part of the equation. And it's also individual decisions made by executives about artists on their label.

CARMICHAEL: And by the way, Too Short, he never released that conscious album. His music stayed dirty, maybe even got dirtier.

MADDEN: We also reached out to Barry Weiss for this story, who declined to comment.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, but there are other industry bigwigs who've responded to these kind of questions before. Jimmy Iovine, who ran Interscope Records back in the day - of course, that was Death Row's distribution company - he talked to Sway on "Sway In The Morning" about his role behind the biggest and baddest gangsta rap label of the '90s.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "SWAY IN THE MORNING")

SWAY CALLOWAY: You know, Death Row, the messaging that it was perpetuating at that time, to us was like, man, I don't see nothing wrong with it; they're talking about what we see on the streets every single day. But to a lot of folks - not everybody in the Black community at least felt like this messaging was healthy for the community. Did you at any time listen to some of the music and go, hey, fellas, you know, this might be pushing it too far?

JIMMY IOVINE: Well, you see, I come from a background of where artists are allowed to create anything they want to create. That was my history. That's all I knew. It's a very complex issue, you know...

CALLOWAY: Yeah.

IOVINE: ...That I've dealt with on certain levels and I've had conversations about. But if that's Dre and Snoop's truth, I - what am I supposed to do?

CALLOWAY: Yeah.

IOVINE: I don't know. I don't - I always felt that artists should be able to express themselves, and I still feel that way.

CALLOWAY: You still feel that way.

CARMICHAEL: See, this is so much bigger than Too Short. But if you really want to understand why this conspiracy letter had so much traction in the first place, you've got to listen to where Too Short took it when I asked him if he believes the letter is true.

TOO SHORT: The entire image of, I'm a motherfucker thug - it's fucking brainwashing. It's fucking rock-yourself-to-sleep brainwashing. It's a tough guy - we brag about the trap. What the fuck do you get caught in in the trap? A fucking prison cell or a coffin. How the fuck are we bragging about the trap? How fucking brainwashed could you be from civil rights, the civil rights movement, to go, I'm a fucking thug, bitch - yeah, I'm in the trap? What the fuck? If you went into a civil rights meeting and said, Mr. Martin Luther King, I'm a thug from the trap - everybody in the damn church try to save you.

MADDEN: I mean, what would Dr. King have to say about "Blow The Whistle?"

CARMICHAEL: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

MADDEN: Like, Short is one of the kings of misogynoir. Come on.

CARMICHAEL: He definitely is. But I think that's what makes his rant about trap so ironic, right? I mean, even Too Short feels like rap has devolved. If that ain't some generation-gap thinking for you. I mean, it's the same kind of thinking that fueled a lot of the fears and paranoia represented in the letter in the first place. And, you know, Too Short - he can believe what he wants to believe about trap music.

MADDEN: But, Rodney, he's not taking responsibility for the fact that back in the day, he personified so much of the same things he's calling out trap for.

CARMICHAEL: Well, I kind of asked him about that.

So how do you reconcile the fact that, in some ways, just like you're laying out, you might have been kind of, I mean, do you see yourself as potentially as a pawn in this, you know, criminalization of the culture in terms of you...

TOO SHORT: Am I a pawn? I'm not - I wasn't invited to the board meeting. I'm not in the fucking meetings. I can't push the agenda in hip-hop music back to where positive songs are what we like more. But if you back hip-hop up against the wall, something similar to the situation we're in now, you come out this motherfucker in dire need of some kind of guidance. Hip-hop is going to step up. It's going to be forced to. Like, we're - in a minute we'll throw these fucking chains away and start speaking about survival in a minute if that became our life.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. But what happens when the genre that's always been the most vocal critic of overpolicing becomes the target of it?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: OK. Let me just say this for the record - all rap is political, from Too Short to the trap. And no matter how righteous or ratchet a rapper you are, one thing throughout history has always unified all of hip-hop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUCK THA POLICE")

ICE CUBE: (Rapping) Fuck the police, coming straight from the underground. A young nigga got it bad 'cause I'm brown.

CARMICHAEL: Yup - the universal disdain for the boys in blue.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUCK THA POLICE")

ICE CUBE: (Rapping) Fuck that shit 'cause I ain't the one for a punk...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Three available units.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUND OF DA POLICE")

KRS-ONE: (Rapping) Woop (ph) woop. That's the sound of the police. Woop woop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUNK POLICE")

MAC DRE: (Rapping) Why is the police steady knocking on my door?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CROOKED OFFICER")

SCARFACE: (Rapping) I got a grudge against you blue suits, black suits, white suits and state troops.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUCK THE POLICE")

BOOSIE BADAZZ: (Rapping) Fuck the police. Fuck the police. Without that badge, you a bitch and a half.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLLIN'")

KRAYZIE BONE: (Rapping) Pop pop, hope cops don't see me on a low key...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARCH MADNESS")

FUTURE: (Rapping) These fucking police can't touch me. These police-police can't touch me. These...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS AMERICA")

CHILDISH GAMBINO: (Rapping) Look how I'm living now. Police be tripping now. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUND OF DA POLICE")

KRS-ONE: (Rapping) Woop woop. That's the sound of the beast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: We'll give this a 32.

MADDEN: From the '90s into the new millennium, hip-hop was becoming more dominant, so more rappers were becoming high profile. But with all that added exposure, we noticed a pattern of more and more rappers getting arrested.

CARMICHAEL: So here's our third question. Did law enforcement actually start targeting hip-hop artists directly?

DERRICK PARKER: I just told the chief that, you know, creating a dossier is going to cause a lot of problems because people are going to say something. Oh, you got a picture of this guy and who he's affiliated with and what cars he drives and what clubs he goes to.

MADDEN: That's Derrick Parker, self-proclaimed hip-hop cop and a retired NYPD officer. He was one of a few officers in New York that started a secret dossier to watch rappers.

PARKER: It was sort of helpful in a way to identify and to sort of - at the police department - to know what's going on.

CARMICHAEL: The dossier was created around the new millennium in the aftermath of the Death Row-Bad Boy beef that left Biggie and Tupac dead.

MADDEN: Derrick says the dossier was used, in part, to monitor where rap artists would perform just in case something popped off.

PARKER: The rule is - we don't get upset at you guys. We shut you down. If you go to a venue and they book you, we'll put the pressure on the venue to cancel you.

CARMICHAEL: So talk about that because that seems kind of like - that seems to cross the line a little bit, I mean, of just...

PARKER: It does, but here's the problem with that. We're going to have to devote police resources to that area, which is going to take me away from policing my area, my community. And then if something happens, we're going to come down on you guys because we don't want this guy here in the first place, you know? Not because of the rappers, the people that come to see the rap artist. Not in all cases. There are some nights when you have these artists and nothing goes down, but there are some times when people get shot.

CARMICHAEL: Now, he claims that police were also there to protect artists from feuds that might get out of hand.

MADDEN: OK. But regardless of what they say they're trying to do, this is an example of law enforcement violating people's constitutional rights.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. Basically, they're messing with their First Amendment rights.

MADDEN: Yeah, all because of the audience they assume rappers attract and the type of music that rappers make. And Derrick also explained to us that cops are always watching about how these rap beefs play out in the media. They know the public is paying attention, and they feed into that too.

PARKER: Listen. Detectives are like anybody else. If I take this crew out, maybe I'll get some recognition.

CARMICHAEL: And law enforcement wasn't just reading the pages of magazines to track rappers. They even tried to cultivate journalistic sources. In 2004, the Source magazine, the original hip-hop bible, published its first hip-hop-behind-bars issue.

So what did you see as the link between rap and mass incarceration at the time?

OSORIO: I don't think back then we understood the link the way that it would be today.

CARMICHAEL: Now, that's Kim Osorio, who was editor-in-chief at The Source when the magazine was starting to notice what we all were. Hip-hop was on trial.

OSORIO: You know, this was also around the time there were a lot of theories about the hip-hop police and the fact that the feds were targeting hip-hop. Like, don't think that the feds weren't calling me. They were. I wouldn't talk to them, but...

CARMICHAEL: What would they say when they called you?

OSORIO: We just want to talk. You have time? Who am I - see, I'm a little bit different just because I - you know, by the time I got to The Source, I had already went to law school, so I had a little bit of perspective and knowledge about what my rights were. But, you know, those cold calls that came in where people were trying to ask - I'm not - who is this? I'm not having this conversation. That happened more than once. So I looked at that, and I looked at the system differently - what's happening, you know, to our Black and brown people. You can't call me at The Source and ask me no questions. Do you have probable cause for this phone call? Goodbye. (Laughter) We don't talk to the police.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "G CODE")

GETO BOYS: (Rapping) We don't talk to police. We don't make a peace bond. We don't trust in the judicial system. We shoot guns. We rely on the streets. We do battle in the hood. I was born in the G code, embedded in my blood. We don't talk to police. We don't make a peace bond.

CARMICHAEL: Kim keeping it G. She could have been on that Geto Boys joint back in the day.

MADDEN: That same kind of profiling that Kim's talking about - it's still happening today. I mean, just look at what happened to Brooklyn's own Casanova. Casanova's got a criminal past, and he spent pretty much his 20s in prison for armed robbery.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, that song "Jail Call" from his 2019 album - man, that's about as raw and real a prison testimony as you can get.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JAIL CALL")

CASANOVA: (Rapping) Have you ever thought of suicide on a jail call while your mother crying? Pick up. I'm on a jail call.

"Jail Call" is everything you don't see and - or you don't hear about prison because even going to jail as a young kid and just coming home - it was never talked about. It was like, yo. Yo, you big, bro. Yo, what you was doing there? Yo, you know I knocked out what you call it from. Everything was just bragging. It was no pain being exchanged.

MADDEN: What did you learn being incarcerated?

CASANOVA: I learned a lot, you know what I'm saying? I learned I wasn't good at robbing. Like I said, when you don't get caught for something, you tend to think that you got away with it. And then when you finally get caught, you understand how stupid you was. Like, why would I even think I would get away with that? Like, I learned patience.

MADDEN: But even though Casanova feels like he became a new person, the NYPD hasn't given him the benefit of the doubt to outgrow his past. And you can see that by what happened last fall when he flew back home to perform at Rolling Loud Festival in New York City, one of hip-hop's biggest festivals.

CASANOVA: I had my drip ready. I was in a hotel. I just flew in from Miami, bought a whole Dior sweatsuit. It was lit. And as soon as I landed, I remember my phone ringing, ringing, ringing, ringing, ringing, ringing. Pop Smoke called me. Pop Smoke was like, yo, they told you you can't perform at Rolling Loud? I'm like, no; they told you that? Like, yeah, they just sent me a letter. I'm like, nigga, you fucked up. I'm good. He like, yo, they canceled Rolling Loud.

MADDEN: The NYPD had sent a letter to the concert organizers, listing five rappers, including Casanova, saying if they performed, there would be, quote, "higher risk of violence."

CASANOVA: One day before I was supposed to perform and saying, like, I'm a gang member known for - I'm like, hold on. I haven't been convicted of a crime since 2007. What in the fucking world is going on here?

MADDEN: The cops were trying to stop Casanova's future - his bag - because of his criminal past and his gang affiliations, which is stuff he openly raps about.

CARMICHAEL: OK. So we know that hip-hop cops have been targeting rappers for decades, that the industry pressured certain artists to promote certain stereotypes.

MADDEN: And that the birth of gangsta rap came as a result of the war on drugs, not the other way around.

CARMICHAEL: But you know what? We still had one more nagging question about this bogus conspiracy letter. Who wrote it?

NELSON GEORGE: Nelson George. I'm a writer, author and filmmaker.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, and let's add legend to that 'cause even if you don't think you know Nelson George, trust - you know his pen. I mean, he's probably the most important Black music critic of the last half of the 20th century. Now, he wrote this novel called "The Plot Against Hip Hop" in 2011. This is just months before the letter came out. And at the center of this novel, there's a conspiracy that's almost identical to the one laid out in the letter. So if anybody could set us straight on the truth behind this conspiracy theory, it had to be Nelson, right?

So my first question - did you write an email or a letter in 2012 saying that there was a meeting with a record company and private prison executives met to discuss pushing gangsta rap?

GEORGE: Did I write it?

CARMICHAEL: Yeah.

GEORGE: No. Hell, no.

CARMICHAEL: (Laughter) OK.

GEORGE: I read that crazy shit, but I didn't write it.

CARMICHAEL: OK, OK. Now, I mean, I knew he didn't actually write the letter, but I wanted to get his take on it considering all these connections that he made.

What did you think when you read it?

GEORGE: I thought it was ridiculous.

CARMICHAEL: Why?

GEORGE: It would suggest a level of organization and coordination that I've never seen displayed in the recording industry. To me, that was a very fanciful vision of the cabal of white supremacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GEORGE: And I - you know, it doesn't - in my experience, it doesn't - certainly in the entertainment business, it doesn't work that way. I mean, here's the thing about Black people and conspiracies, in my opinion at least - that there's been a lot of terrible things done to us. But just because it has happened - because it was a Tuskegee experiment, because there was COINTELPRO, it doesn't mean that every aspect of American life is controlled by these groups.

CARMICHAEL: OK. So Nelson George believes the theory is fiction, just like his book. But if you were born in Tuskegee, Ala., like me, just after the government-funded Tuskegee experiment ended...

MADDEN: Or if you grew up in Boston like me and heard about city hall riots over integration and the theories about COINTELPRO sabotaging Black power movements...

CARMICHAEL: And if you've ever even heard about the alleged Iran-Contra-CIA drug triangle and a legendary dealer named Freeway Ricky Ross, man, this letter not only sounds plausible, it sounds like gospel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KILLER MIKE: I hear so much conspiratorial stuff, I don't believe or disbelieve anything. I just listen and hear.

CARMICHAEL: Now, here's Killer Mike again, closing us out with a benediction.

KILLER MIKE: But what I can tell you is that a lot of conspiracies are believable. And the reason I say that is all this business is attached. The same companies that own one thing a lot of times are conglomerates that own other things. Now, when people say, well, that sounds ridiculous, what's not ridiculous is that we know if the child is not reading by third grade, they have a higher likelihood of going into prison. We know that's not a conspiracy.

So can I believe that conspiracy is true? Yeah, because at every other helm, it's true. If you look at health care, you're underserved. If you look at education, you're underserved. You get what I'm saying?

CARMICHAEL: I hear you.

KILLER MIKE: The question for me becomes, as an American, why are we so in an uproar about the Second Amendment and never the 13th? You understand what I'm saying?

CARMICHAEL: I hear you. I hear you.

KILLER MIKE: Like, we never talk about the fact that slavery is still legal. And because slavery is still legal, there's a need to fill the void of slaves. So absolutely, I believe damn near any conspiracy that talks about putting poor people in jail because there's a profit margin to be made for doing it. So I - it's not if I can believe it or not, it's - look at - the proof's in the pudding. Look at what you're seeing. You know - so the question is, though, now what are we going to do about it?

CARMICHAEL: Now, let's keep it a buck. Right now, for the first time, it feels like America is finally getting hip to what hip-hop has been saying for decades, finally reading between the lines of the lyrics. And that's what we're doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: Each episode this season, we're going to break down a different aspect of the criminal justice system. And we're going to do it by telling the stories of those who lived it - the rise, the fall and everything in between.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDEN: And every step of the way, hip-hop is going to be our guide, from RICO laws and industry complicity in the case of Bobby Shmurda to the criminalization of mixtape culture with DJ Drama.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: From gang profiling and parole pitfalls in Nipsey Hussle's South Central to prison conditions and human rights violations with Isis Tha Saviour...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: ...'Cause if a riot...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: ...Is the language of the unheard.

CARMICHAEL: ...Like Dr. King once said, then rap is the definitive soundtrack.

I'm Rodney Carmichael.

MADDEN: And I'm Sidney Madden.

CARMICHAEL: From NPR Music, this is LOUDER THAN A RIOT.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: On our next episode, lyrics on trial in the case of former No Limit soldier Mac Phipps.

MASTER P: Mac was probably one of the best artists ever came to No Limit.

BRAXTON: They're reading their lyrics to the jury as a justification for them being guilty.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: This episode was written by me and Sid and Matt Ozug. Michael May edited this one with help from Chiquita Paschal.

MADDEN: It was produced by Adelina Lancianese and mixed by Josh Newell with help from Dustin DeSoto and Sam Leeds.

CARMICHAEL: Senior supervising producers are Rachel Neel and N'Jeri Eaton.

MADDEN: And shout out to the bigwigs - Steve Nelson, Lauren Onkey and Anya Grundmann.

CARMICHAEL: With original music Kassa Overall - he's a dope artist. Y'all should check him out.

MADDEN: Our digital editor is Jacob Ganz. Our fact checker is Greta Pittenger.

CARMICHAEL: And special thanks to everyone who lent their time and expertise to this one.

MADDEN: Hit us up on Twitter - @LouderThanARiot. Subscribe to us in your podcast feeds, obviously. And if you want to email us, we're at louder@npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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