NOTE: This Blog is the final installment in a three-part series by Fury Young about the DJC LP Southern Trip 2017. Thanks to our Generosity donors for making the trip possible.
Blog XI took us deep into Texas by way of Huntsville, the prison capital of the state: home to TDCJ headquarters, Texas Prison Museum, five prisons in town, and three more on the outskirts. Here I met with TDCJ officials to discuss recording at Hughes Unit, a maximum security prison in Gatesville. I was denied the following week via email. Suffice to say, this denial did not dampen my resolve. I believe the project needs to gain access to other facilities before landing Texas. Everything is done differently in Texas; it’s a tough nut to crack.
From Huntsville I made my way to New Orleans, where I spent the next few days in the [insert fitting adjective to do justice to NOLA] city. NOLA is a tough place that has lots of flavor and excitement, great people and music, grit and culture, and side by side much poverty and inequality.
I arrived late Tuesday, May 9, and crashed at an old friend’s. The first full day was spent looking for formerly incarcerated musicians with chops to do additional recordings with. I had already planned a session with Malcolm “Sticks” Morris for that Friday, so I wanted to see about doing some other recordings while in town. After a day of phone calls and various chats with locals, it was brought to mind that NOLA operates in its own time zone and you can’t really plan stuff. So, I decided to approach the meetings as interviews — basically to feel out people’s vibes and see if there would be room for collaboration on future recordings. I got two promising referrals, and set up meetings for the following day.
That Thursday morning before my meetings, I paid a visit to Myron Hodges’ family, who I had visited with two years prior on my first Die Jim Crow trip to Louisiana. That time around, the main purpose of the trip was to meet Myron, who is one of the most respected musicians at Louisiana State Penitentiary (more infamously known as Angola). Myron has served 30+ years at Angola for a murder him and his family maintain he did not commit. In October 2015, I attended the Angola Prison Rodeo, and talked with Myron at length about recording at LSP. The recording proposal was eventually denied. I’ve maintained contact with Myron and his family over the years, and seeing them again was a moving experience. Mrs. Emelda Smith, Myron’s mother, is a native New Orleanian who raised twelve kids in a musical household. Myron was rocking a guitar at age nine and playing club gigs by seventeen. His mom instilled in him a work ethic that hasn’t slowed down during his time inside. Mrs. Emelda is no slouch on the keyboard herself, and leads musical services at her church at the age of eighty-three. She has been playing all of her adult life.
I put on the Die Jim Crow EP for Mrs. Emelda, excited to show her the progress the project had made, wishing her son Myron had been approved to participate so she could hear him too. She sat back and listened to each song not saying much, just taking it in. “I was thinking about those guys in the other prisons, and thinking about what they must have gone through, like Myron did.” It was a lovely visit but bittersweet as well, as the pain that his family feels having him gone is so palpable. Sitting on the porch with Sennetta Hodges, Myron’s younger sister, she told me stories of their rough childhood growing up in New Orleans in the 1970s. I couldn’t help but question fate, and just why Myron, such a loved and talented man, wound up with a life without parole sentence on his back. I pray that one day Myron Hodges will be home on Frenchmen Street with his family again. Until then, I will continue to attempt to gain access to LSP so his musical legacy can be captured on record.
My first meeting was with Troy Becton (AKA Black Troy), who served a total of six years in the Louisiana prison system. He served two bids for heroin distribution. Born and raised in uptown 3rd Ward, here is Troy in his own words: “I’ve been writing raps since I was small, I just never put music on them. It was after I came home on my last trip that I tried it. My business partner Maceo3 put me on his song ‘I’m Sorry,’ and it got a lot of good feedback. That was the start of Black Troy.
“I try to come off as ‘I’mma give it to you raw, but we also have messages in our songs.’ That’s where I got the title [of his debut mixtape “The Streets Lied To Me”] from. I’m telling you what’s going on in the streets. A lot of people rap about street stuff, but they’re not giving you the whole truth. They’ll tell you to get out there and hustle, sell drugs, shoot somebody, but not the consequences of that. If you’re gonna talk about it, give the whole truth.”
Troy has a steady job as a forklift operator and does music on the side. We met at a frozen drink spot with music blasting so loud we had to shout, but the vibe was good and Troy dug the DJC EP songs I played him on headphones. I also dug the track he played me. I gave him an outline of the album and told him I’d be in touch.
Check out Black Troy’s mixtape “The Streets Lied To Me Vol. 1.” “Vol. 2” and “Earned My Stripes” coming soon to his R33LTALK 3NT label.
I left Troy and jetted over to Walter Coleman, who, though recently released, has spent most of his adult life in and out of prisons. When Walter told me he’d been in Angola for most of that time, I brought up Myron. Instantly a spark went off and Coleman’s natural demeanor of excitement went through the roof. He began trading war stories of playing drums in a band with Myron, then asked about two minutes later, when I handed him a copy of the Die Jim Crow EP, if I needed him to learn the drum parts. We listened to a few tracks (“Oooh, Myron would’ve killed that even harder” – Walter on the “Headed to the Streets” guitar solo) and decided we would stay in touch. I hit up Myron shortly after on jpay and verified that Walter was as talented as he said he was. “Yes.”
That Friday, the long awaited session went down. The driving force behind these recordings was Malcolm “Sticks” Morris, a New Orleanian-to-the-core who spent 15 years at Angola on a drug charge. Malcolm had been sentenced to 60 years for possession of marijuana, and eventually beat his case on appeals. Malcolm has been out since 2010, playing the French Quarter and gigging around town with his unique drum sound.
Malcolm had been practicing two new songs since our last visit in December 2016 (see Blog VI), and had secured a backing band. According to Malcolm, the tuba player and trumpet player had spent some months in jail, and the guitarist Malcolm had met briefly while at Angola Prison.
There’s an important distinction here between jail and prison, which a lot of people don’t realize: jail is for people awaiting trial or doing short stays, prison is where you are sentenced to do your bid. While I do not discount the experience of jail, I almost exclusively work with folks who have done or are doing prison time, as that is what the narrative on the Die Jim Crow LP is about. That said, Malcolm picked who he picked, and there is just no way the entire LP can be made up of all formerly-in-prison musicians. Indeed, the EP features several contributing instrumentalists who have never been incarcerated.
The session went very well, and the two songs we recorded, “Nothing” and “Swing It Down”, add a very New Orleans sound to the LP. The guitar player, Sam Friend, who ended up playing banjo instead, added a great touch with his instrument of choice. I asked him later when he’d been to Angola, curious if he knew Myron. “I… I was never in Angola.” Malcolm, who knew Sam would add fire to the track no matter what his prison record looked like, had lied to get Sam on the session. I couldn’t help but laugh and take it in stride. “Never do that again,” I said to Malcolm. If Sam had sucked, it might have been a different story. The goal for the LP is to feature all formerly incarcerated musicians, but that simply is near impossible. Try finding a bagpipe player who has been locked up. They’re out there, but good luck on your search… if you find ’em, give us a holler. They don’t need to be American.
All in all, the session was an insane but brilliant few hours of music making, and Kenneth Terry (trumpet) and Mark “Tuba” Smith did a great job on the horn section. Shout out to Titty Pink Studios and Michael Ward-Bergeman who did an A1 job engineering/holding it all together. There were some… playful moments.
I left NOLA feeling great about the session, and made it to Birmingham AL that Saturday in the late afternoon. My purpose in Birmingham was to meet Tameca Cole, who I had been writing to for the prior three years while she was in prison. Tameca had written several lyrics while inside, but had never rapped them. So this wasn’t only her first time rapping for someone else, but also being recorded.
Before getting to recording, we chatted for awhile as two people would who’d been corresponding for three years as friends and creative partners. We sat in my rental car and listened to the EP from start to finish. Tameca, who’d heard me talk about all these songs, and even read their lyrics in the EP Book, was blown away with what she heard. This set the mood for the recording session shortly after.
The track we recorded was “[secret title for now],” which dr. Israel and I had recorded the instrumental for at Warren Correctional Institution back in November 2015. There are a lot more tracks Tameca wrote and will be featured on, so I figured approaching the session as a demo recording was the way to go. That said, for a first timer, Tameca really smacked it. Here’s a taste:
I left Tameca the following morning with a warm feeling. It was Mother’s Day, and she was heading to her family’s house with a variety of food she’d cooked (I got to sample her mac and cheese… amen). Before we said our goodbyes, I shot this brief but powerful interview with Tameca.
“I think that one of the best parts actually — I mean I’m being really true, since I’ve been out — was having the first opportunity to rap my lyrics.”
I headed next to Joelton, TN, just a few miles outside of Nashville. There I stayed with Linda Polk and Andy Dixon-Polk, a couple I’d met at the International Prisoner’s Family Conference earlier in the trip. Not your average couple, Linda met Andy while he was serving a life sentence. In 1997, she was a social work student assigned to DeBerry Special Needs Facility, where she met her future life partner in Andy. They began a romantic relationship in ’98, just a few months before his first parole hearing was scheduled. Andy had served 20 years and was hopeful that he’d make parole, but it was cancelled in retaliation for Andy and Linda having developed a relationship. After a six-year battle for the right to marry and to have his illegal sentence overturned, Andy was finally released in 2005, and he and Linda were married. They’ve been together since. In addition to co-owning a trucking company, Linda and Andy are staunch advocates and co-authored a book titled “Felonism: Hating in Plain Sight.” Andy is also a singer-songwriter, and I had the privilege of recording him sing a song of his: “Destiny.”
Here are Linda and Andy describing their book, “Felonism: Hating in Plain Sight.”
I finally headed north. The last business meeting was with Maxwell Melvins, who I’d met in February 2017 and recorded an extensive interview with. Melvins has a one in a million story. He was given a life sentence at age twenty for accidentally shooting his best friend. Melvins had fired shots at a fleeing drug dealer who he’d been stiffed by on a pick-up, and a stray bullet struck and killed his friend.
Feeling deep remorse for the murder, Melvins became involved with Rahway Prison’s Juvenile Awareness Program (JAP), also known as “Scared Straight” (the TV series originally came out of the JAP program at Rahway, the title a sensational Hollywood branding move). Wanting to reach youth through the up-and-coming genre of the era, Melvins formed a hip hop ensemble called Lifers Group, which went on to record an EP, an LP, and receive a Grammy nomination in 1991. Maxwell oversaw the project from fruition to completion, and was for all intents and purposes the uncredited Executive Producer of Lifers Group. After Lifers Group’s popularity dwindled and Melvins was transferred to Trenton State Prison, he spent the next seventeen years of his bid fighting for his release. In 2011, Maxwell Melvins was granted parole on his third hearing.
Maxwell and I discussed future collaboration together, especially what his partnership would look like on the Die Jim Crow LP. We also discussed gaining access to Rahway Prison (now East Jersey State Prison), which we will attempt in the Fall. Look out for more from Maxwell Melvins in the near future, including the full interview late August.
Well, that’s all folks: that’s the Die Jim Crow Southern Trip. I hope you enjoyed the last three blogs. There is a lot more coming in the next few months with the project, so stay tuned. The main endeavor this summer is the music video for “Headed to the Streets,” the final track off the EP.
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Thank you. Over and out.