John Forté On How Prison Time Shaped His Worldview And Informed His New Album

“John Forté, grab the mic, let’s sway this way!”

That line, rapped by Wyclef Jean, is one of hip-hop’s most iconic shout outs, introducing mainstream audiences to John Forté. The then-22-year-old songwriter, producer, and rapper did grab the mic. His guest verse on Clef’s single “We Trying to Stay Alive” proved highly quotable (“Every step: tango’d. Your beef don’t concern me // I’m eating mangoes in Trinidad with attorneys”) and anointed him as a soon-to-be-star in the Fugee rap family.

It was 1997 and Forté was 22. He’d already garnered a Grammy nomination (for production work on The Score) and his debut solo album, Poly Sci, was soon to drop. Life was good.

What followed is one of the least-known, most-fascinating stories in all of hip-hop history. After Poly Sci proved “a brick” (in Forté’s own words), he started running drugs to maintain the lavish lifestyle that Refugee All-Star status had gotten him used to. In 2000, he was arrested in the Newark airport with $1.4 million in liquid cocaine and sentenced to 14 years in prison for possession with intent to distribute. With his second album I, John, landing shortly after he entered FCI Loretto, and receiving a much better critical response than Poly Sci, it seemed as though one of hip-hop’s rising stars had been extinguished. His career destined to become collateral damage in the war on drugs.

The tale only gets wilder from there (George W. Bush, Senator Orrin Hatch, and Carly Simon all make appearances) but it’s better to have Forté tell it — in a clip from this week’s People’s Party with Talib Kweli, featured below. Fast forward to 2020, Forté dropped his first feature-length project since leaving prison, Riddem Drive, on Valentine’s Day. This Monday, he appears on People’s Party, chopping it up with Kweli, his longtime friend and collaborator. (The two met at Rawkus Records where Kweli was signed and Forté was an A&R for a short stint; Rawkus was founded by Jarret Myer, founder of UPROXX).

With Riddem Drive hours from dropping, his episode of People’s Party getting prepped for launch, and new demands on his energy stacking up, Forté talked with me about his album, his artistic philosophy, and his thoughts on criminal justice reform. Nothing was off the table and the rapper’s sincerity and thoughtfulness were on display throughout. Sadly, I didn’t have time to ask him whether he really was eating mangoes in Trinidad with attorneys way back in ’97. It’s a shame we’ll never know because that’s gotta be one of rap’s best flexes ever.


For anyone who knows hip-hop, you are one of the genre’s most fascinating stories. You came into my life through the Fugees’ first record, The Score, which led you to be nominated for a Grammy. What was your role on that historical project, and then how did that spin-off to thinking “Okay, now the next thing is for me to have a solo career?”

Well, it’s funny, the internet always wins. I received a message on Thursday, February 13th, that it was 24 years ago, in 1996, to the days since The Score was released. So much of it feels like it’s coming full circle. I produced on that album, I also performed on that album. And I always showed up with my Refugee camp garb on and ready to represent the squad. It was a fantastic time.

When you started out, at that point, you were producing obviously, and then you started spitting verses and then eventually it turned into a solo project. Is that kind of the odyssey for you?

I actually started my relationship with the lyrics well before I began producing. I started writing earlier, around the time that I was eight, and it gave me the good fortune of being proximate to some great individuals, like Big Black, who would bring me around and take me to the studio. Next thing you know, I’m looking over DJ Premier’s shoulders — being a fly on the wall at the age of 15, 16 years old. I think that allowed me very, very early on to absorb by osmosis the culture as it was being created, to the point where I would be able to make my own contribution. It happened very organically, very naturally, but there was a lot of listening, learning, winging it, and apprenticeship.

I enjoy being around poetic spirits, poetic souls and artistic types. And you’re a person who, in person, just exudes that. But you were coming up in a time in New York hip-hop where people were starting to find that lane a little bit, but there was also a lot of really hardcore stuff.

How did you figure out who you were going to be as an artist? Or did you always have a sense of yourself?

I think I always had a sense of myself. That’s not to say that I could not have allowed myself to have been directed more in my youth, but I think that that’s a part of youth, the sort of defiance, the hubris of it. But you can take youth and then you compound that with hip-hop and you’ve got a lot of Type A personalities ready to run through walls, and I think that we follow our passion more than anything else and allow for the process to work itself out.

I don’t necessarily recall the industry as being poetic versus street. For me, it felt like a melting pot of energies. In order to navigate it, what was important to me was being as authentic as I could with my contribution to whatever was going on, whether it was rapping in the park, or whether it was making a beat, or whether it was writing to a beat, or whether it was watching someone dance. You know, bearing witness is also a part of this culture. It’s not always the person who was making the noise who is crucial.

It seems like you’re one of these people who appreciates beauty and also sees a couple moves out ahead. Like you know who you are and what you’re about. Was that who you were as a young man, too?

No, no, no. I thank you, but I wouldn’t give myself that much credit. To be youthful is to be influenced. I would be a liar if I didn’t say that when I created at the age 18, 19, 20, that I wasn’t listening to other artists and having that inspire what I was doing, either because I appreciate it or respect their ways, or I suspected that there was something in what I was listening to that was going to be an indicator where we were going to go sonically.

I was always paying attention and willing to take risks because as an artist, I think that you have to have some barometer and, to me, mine was probably not where it is today. But it was to honor that true sense of north that I felt that was within me, and again, remains so. But I definitely had influences, was definitely inspired by folks, and, as a result, adjusted my sound accordingly.

Fast-forwarding a little bit from there, you’re part of another massive story in the history of hip-hop and you talk about it on The People’s Party. I don’t want to put you in that position where you feel like you’re always telling this story. But you went to prison on a pretty heavy drug charge and then you were locked up for what, eight years?

Seven and a half years.

The clemency is a fascinating story because it came from G.W. Bush at the end of his second term. Is that right?

Yep, I received executive clemency. It was a commutation, so it meant that my time inside was done in his eyes, but I still came home with five years of supervised release. I didn’t do the five years of supervised release, because of… call it “good behavior.” But no, I still have the conviction on my record. If it was an outright pardon, I wouldn’t have the conviction. As it stands, I do have a conviction, but I came home early.

Your history with the Fugees, the spending a fair bit of your 20s in prison, being pardoned by, in one of the wildest stories ever, which is that you’re friends with Ben Taylor, who is the son of Carly Simon, and somehow you got connected to Orrin Hatch… Orrin Hatch, who has not often been considered the most progressive thinker, but he helped get you clemency from George W. Bush. All of this conspires towards where we are today.

Now — with all that backdrop — talk to me about this album and what went into your thought process there.

This is my third full studio album. I guess on paper, it feels any other day with the exception of the fact that my last studio album was released in 2002 and I was away at that time. I went away in 2001, so I was in my first year of what I thought was a 14-year prison sentence. So, to have the opportunity now, after all of that time, and I’ve had so much living in between now and then, it just felt more timely than ever to release this. It’s a body of work that is very, very intimate. In fact, I think my daughter is screaming in support in the background, she happens to be on the album. So I’m very, very proud of that. It’s our first duet, hopefully of many.

It’s a “less is more” approach to telling the story that is my life in an era where you can have as many virtual tracks as you dream. We’ve become so used to the “wall of sound” approach to albums because we’re surrounded by so much noise that I wanted to take the opportunity, while making this album, to remove layers. I think the result is a really intimate experience — one that moves me deeply and therefore if anyone else is moved, that’s the icing on the cake. I made this album to be inspired and it’s definitely a labor of love and a celebration of that and appropriately coming out on February 14th, the Hallmark holiday, but I’m willing to invest in that day as well just because I think we can all use a lot more love.

That’s one thing for someone whose life has been all breezy to say — “we need more love” — and a different thing for someone who did serious time, who took some tough breaks, who has been through some shit and is putting out an album that reflects a lot of history. How much, with the album, were you trying to reflect, to really say, “Look, this is me now as an artist. This is everything I know about myself up till now. Here’s what I am.”

I don’t know how much of that I entered into each song with, as much as I went with the flow of what felt right at the time. It was a process of continuous reaffirmation that “this is right, this feels good, this belongs.” As long as I was hearing that, that’s what I went with. To say that it’s deeply personal is one thing, but I know, recognize, and acknowledge that contrast is what adds texture to the experience. Were it not for knowing how hot something is, I might not be able to tell you how cold something can seem to me. So for me to have experienced the so-called “depth” of surviving through the belly of that beast to make it to the other side, and to find myself here and now with a voice and a platform and family and roots and sense and sensibility. My words are out of the stream. This isn’t a calculated effort, this is me going with what feels right. And in that, again, if anyone is able to have some sort of resonance to this art, that’s just a bonus for me.

John Forte/ Javotti

Culturally speaking, we’ve talked a lot in the past year about prison reform and what prison means and what it means to have been incarcerated. Whether or not that’s even the best function for our society. Has your time in prison reframed that? Has your time in prison for a drug charge made you think about the drug war and how that affects people, particularly black people?

Sure, it has. Especially because of where I find myself in addition to making music — working in the legal cannabis space. So here I am — a brown man with a conviction — in an emerging sector that has the opportunity to get it right, to get social equity right, from the floor up rather than having to reverse engineer it because we could have done better early on. So again, every day that I live my life is in the context of knowing. For me to show up and to be a creator to this organization means that I’ve to put all of me into it.

All of me would not be me were it not for that experience of being away from the age of 25 to 33 and going through it and having to learn more about myself than I thought I might. So yeah, I think that the war on drugs is something that has haunted me and that continues to haunt me. I personally feel like I have a responsibility to do more because I’ve lived more, at least in the sense of having had this experience of saying, “Hey, you know what? I know what’s around that corner.” So if it’s to offer a cautionary tale, I’m certainly willing and prepared to do that. I think that’s one aspect of it.

I also think that another aspect of it is doing what we can to inform policy so that the egregious mistakes of the past — in the way of Draconian sentences or criminalizing poverty or criminalizing addiction — are reversed or undone. We’re seeing alternatives to those methodologies predominantly because of the far-reaching opioid crisis and the scourge that that is. I think that it’s just forced us, among other things, to reflect on past practices in order to hopefully implement the best practices rather than just good or better practices.

I guess that’s just a long way of saying, “the fight is real, it’s felt, it’s actual, and it’s still in motion.”

Is that something that you see yourself being continually involved with? Is that something you felt the need to address on this album? I’ve spent time with people who did bids and say, “I never want to think about prison again.” I’ve spoken to people who say, “I need to be part of changing this system. This is my cause.” Where do you land on that?

I don’t think I ever had the luxury of saying, “I’m going to put that behind me.”

I think that’s an admirable, and maybe even a “scarlet letter” of my condition. When I came home, I remember walking into a bank and they asked me to put down my Social Security Number and I put down my Federal Inmate Number instead because I was so used to that. It’s definitely left an indelible impression on my psyche and my being, one that can’t easily be shaken or forgotten. It’s about coalition building, it’s about finding serious folks rather than just engaging in the rhetoric. As much of a lyricist as I am, I don’t want to get lost in the word.

Find the clip discussed above — one of the most famous in rap history — here.

You did a beautiful Ted Talk that I saw about how you went from hip-hop star to indie musician on some level. Was that as you evolved or was that just where your musical tastes went? You’re one of these people who follow your tastes hell or high water?

Someone asked me the other day, “What instruments do you play?” And I said that I travel with a guitar but I compose on the piano. I dream in percussion. You put it in front of me, I’ll get with it until we can make something beautiful, and that’s been my relationship with music. So, rather than trying to self-identify as a hip-hop artist, or as anything, I accepted my ability to play in any sonic worlds that inspire me.

In 2012, I was in Russia collaborating with artists who didn’t speak English, but they could play music. And we played all different kinds of music and we turned that into a film. That old cliche of music transcending all languages is not really a cliche, that’s actual fact. This album, there’s a lot of me and an acoustic guitar and it sounds like you might be sitting across from me. That’s very, very deliberate.

I resisted the temptation to stack and layer and stack and layer and stack and layer. In fact, it was about removing, in most cases, honoring what others might see as flaws or imperfections because I don’t have a traditional crooner’s voice, but what you will hear in my voice is the experience of someone who has lived what he is singing and saying.

That is what art is, in my opinion. That’s the thing that that art should do — it should say, ” Look, I’m the only person who could tell this particular story.”

Recognizing what inspires me and walking towards that and then walking with that. More often than not, I’m surprised. I find myself surprised because it defines my every expectation, as it should. That’s what inspiration is. Art, for me, is seeking out what inspires me and wrapping myself up in that and taking the best parts from it. That’s what that is. It’s “less is more.” The stuff that you end up hearing is not actually there, it’s like a sleight of hand or an illusion. But I will tell you this, those who spend time with it will have an experience.

When you listen through these tracks, do you say, “That is fucking art?”

[Laughs]. It’s certainly about knowing that I’m in my best place, right here, right now. It’s not about catching up for lost time, as much as it’s about settling in to where I’m supposed to be.