The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and hip-hop is its most consumed genre of music. A new podcast from NPR Music looks at how those two facts are interconnected. The podcast is called Louder Than A Riot, and it's hosted by journalists Rodney Carmichael and Sidney Madden.
Carmichael and Madden join Morning Edition's Noel King to discuss the premise of the show and the long-running connection between rhyme and punishment in America.
NOEL KING, HOST:
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and hip-hop is its most consumed genre of music. A new podcast from NPR Music looks at how those two facts are interconnected. The podcast is called Louder Than A Riot, and it's hosted by NPR music journalists Rodney Carmichael and Sidney Madden, who are both with me now. Hey, guys.
SIDNEY MADDEN, BYLINE: Hey.
RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Hey. What's up, Noel?
KING: So how did you make the connection between mass incarceration and hip-hop music?
CARMICHAEL: Well, I mean, first and foremost, the music makes the connection. You know, when I was growing up, all of my favorite rappers, they were the real critics of the criminal justice system, especially in terms of its disproportionate impact on Black America. Rap as a popular music genre and this modern era of mass incarceration, they both started around the same time, in the early '80s. So we got one phenomenon that's coming out of our communities at the same time that this other phenomenon is coming down on our communities the hardest.
MADDEN: And in this podcast, we examine how the hip-hop industry and its players play into the stereotypes but also push back. For example, from the '80s until now, as mass incarceration rose in this country, rappers, they were the ones who were the sociologists, the pundits, the reporters reporting live from their neighborhood on the effects of things like the drug war and racial profiling and police brutality. But then that social commentary was used against them by law enforcement. So we asked, does law enforcement use negative perceptions of hip-hop to justify policing not only Black America but the rap artists themselves?
KING: And what did you find out?
CARMICHAEL: Well, as you're about to hear, one of the guys that we spoke to was Derrick Parker. He's a retired NYPD detective who actually helped start a secret dossier back in the day to watch rappers right after the murders of the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur.
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've got a picture of this guy and who he's affiliated with and what cars he drives and what clubs he goes to. It was sort of helpful, in a way, to identify and to sort of have 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 this seems kind of like - that seems to cross the line a little bit. I mean, I'm 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.
MADDEN: That same kind of profiling, 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 cried? Pick up. I'm on a jail call.
"Jail Call" is everything you don't see or you don't hear about prisons 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 calling from (ph)? 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 (laughter). 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, 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 [expletive] world is going on here?
KING: Sidney, how is this not a violation of his rights? He hasn't done anything wrong, but the NYPD is saying he can't perform at a festival because if he shows up, there might be violence.
MADDEN: Exactly, Noel. These are the questions that we're posing to the people in power all throughout the series.
CARMICHAEL: Yeah. And it also really illustrates the way law enforcement can use an artist's criminal past to make these assumptions about who they are now and not only that but to make assumptions about who's listening to the music, too.
KING: Wow. What are some of the other stories that you explore in the show?
MADDEN: Well, in our latest episode, we get into how prosecutors used rap lyrics in the courtroom, and we do so with New Orleans rapper Mac Phipps. Mac had no criminal record, but prosecutors, they used his lyrics and his persona against him. And he's still in prison to this day, and in our reporting, we found new evidence that he was falsely convicted.
CARMICHAEL: Yeah. It's really all about the collision of rhyme and punishment and what that tells us about America's obsession with race and criminality.
KING: Rodney Carmichael and Sidney Madden, hosts of NPR Music's new podcast Louder Than A Riot. Thank you guys for taking the time. We appreciate it.
MADDEN: Thank you, Noel.
CARMICHAEL: Thanks so much, Noel.
(SOUNDBITE OF KASSA OVERALL'S "'LOUDER THAN A RIOT' THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.