Crime and punishment have long been staples of hip-hop, and not just in the music either. From Slick Rick’s prison sentence in the early ’90s to recent stints by the likes of Gucci Mane, many of your favorite rappers have done time. Of course, that hasn’t stopped them from releasing new music.
Tupac’s third album Me Against The World famously debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200 while he was trapped behind bars, and since then, plenty of other artists have also released new music during their incarceration. Most rely on pre-recorded tracks to do this, and many even stockpile extra songs before being sent away to keep things spinning.
However, there are also a rare few artists who channel their creativity by circumventing the prison system to record songs or even entire albums while in jail. It’s no easy task, but then again, topping the charts isn’t exactly a walk in the park either. Whether you agree with it or not, you can’t deny that these talented felons are hungry for their art. These are a handful of artists who did the impossible and recorded projects while in prison:
Lifer’s Group – ‘Living Proof’
It’s not always easy making friends behind bars, but with the right connections, there’s always a chance you might form your very own Grammy-nominated collective. Back in 1991, a team of musicians in East Jersey State Prison did precisely that when they created a hip-hop group called Lifer’s Group and released the album Living Proof. Born of the Lifers Group Juvenile Awareness Program, this project was nominated by the Grammys for the category of the Best Long Form Music Video, but they weren’t allowed to attend the ceremony for obvious reasons. That’s probably for the best though, as they didn’t even win.
X-Raided – ‘Xorcist’
Back in 1998, X-Raided spoke to Vibe Magazine from behind bars, explaining that “I’m much more creative in here,” and boy, was he right. More prolific than most rappers on the outside, the busiest felon in hip-hop recorded over 20 albums and compilations while serving 26 years for a gang-related homicide. Although later efforts were created with equipment provided within the prison, his second album, Xorcist, was the only one recorded over the phone and remains one of his most celebrated today.
Mac Dre – ‘Back N Da Hood’
After he was arrested for conspiracy to commit bank robbery in Fresno, Mac Dre recorded the entire Back N Da Hood EP over the phone. Not only did the lyrics look back on his early life, but they also discussed what Mac’s current reality was like behind bars too. As if he wasn’t already busy enough with recording, Mac got his G.E.D. while incarcerated at the same time. The influential star was released five years later in 1997, but he was only free for seven more years before unidentified gunmen shot and killed him on October 31, 2004.
The Diplomats – ‘Diplomatic Immunity’
Following the success of Cam’ron’s third album, Come Home With Me, his rap collective, The Diplomats, recorded a joint album together called Diplomatic Immunity. Certified Gold upon release, the group’s first record would go on to be named one of the decade’s best albums by Complex. Diplomat member Hell Rell couldn’t appear as much as he would have liked to after he was arrested for drug charges prior to the album’s release, but he still managed to appear on an impressive four songs, which included his very own freestyle and interlude.
Shyne – ‘Godfather Buried Alive’
Just one year after his debut album blew up the charts in 2000, Shyne started a 10 year sentence in jail. Bad Boy Entertainment released him from his contract soon after, but that didn’t stop other labels from meeting him in prison and starting a bidding war for his music. Def Jam Records eventually won, signing Shyne with a $3 million contract, even though he was still incarcerated at that point.
Because of this, Godfather Buried Alive is comprised largely of music Shyne recorded prior to his sentence, but certain lines were still recorded over a prison phone, including one entirely brand new diss track called “For the Record” which was aimed at 50 Cent. Guest appearances from the likes of Nate Dogg and Ashanti helped flesh the album out further, and upon release, Godfather Buried Alive sold 158,000 copies in the first week, making Shyne the second rapper after Tupac to debut in the Billboard top 10 while serving time.
C-Murder – ‘The Truest Shit I Ever Said’
The Wikipedia page for The Truest Shit I Ever Said describes C-Murder’s fifth project as a “studio” album, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Back in 2002, the rapper otherwise known as Corey Miller was arrested in connection with the murder of 16-year-old Steve Thomas. Because of that, The Truest Shit I Ever Said was recorded during prison visiting hours using his lawyers handheld recorder. The album’s intro is comprised of interviews with Miller’s friends and family, but the songs themselves are all C-Murder, including lead single “My Life,” which achieved moderate success on the charts.
Gucci Mane – ‘BurrrPrint 2HD’
Gucci Mane has a… shall we say, rather curious relationship with the law, but numerous prison stints haven’t stopped him from flooding the charts with his music over the years. Much of it was recorded while on the outside in order to maintain a consistent street presence. However, producer Drumma Boy famously revealed to MTV a few years back that parts of BurrrPrint 2HD were actually devised over the phone from prison.
Although the verses Gucci shared were fire, they also lacked a consistent tempo, so Drumma Boy had to put some extra effort in to make them work: “I had to chop up each word for word to punch into tempo… After I had lined up his verses, I then began to add music around the verses, structure the build, and then create a hook that matched the intensity of his verses. Overall, I spent a good two days producing that record.”
Max B – ‘Toothy Wavy’
It’s usually an insult to suggest that rappers phone their verses in, but Max B has made an impressive career out of doing exactly that since he first went to prison in June 2009. Various guest verses and collaborations have helped him maintain a following since, most notably when he recorded a phone conversation with Kanye West for The Life of Pablo track “Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission”.
Back in 2012, Max B also phoned in a number of verses to create the collaborative mixtape Toothy Wavy alongside Isaiah Toothtaker, earning himself a spot on this list of dubious acclaim. It doesn’t look like the rapper otherwise known as Charley Wingate will be recording songs in an actual studio anytime soon though. In 2016, Max B took a plea bargain for aggravated manslaughter and is currently set for release from prison in 2025.