I ain’t no tattle teller, but I got a confession to make: The person seated in front of me in the cramped visiting room at upstate New York’s Clinton Correctional Facility doesn’t look much like the one in the pictures accompanying the article you’re reading. This guy here’s got hair. Good hair. Long, black and curly. Only when he speaks, in that distinctive, husky drawl, does it become clear that this is indeed Jamal “Shyne” Barrow, the genuine article. The man who Sean “Diddy” Combs signed to Bad Boy Records, way back in 1998, to be the heir to B.I.G.’s throne.
The man who, after a December ’99 night spent partying with his boss and his boss’ lady friend J.Lo, found himself locked up for a 10-year sentence. The man who admits he busted his gun in a crowded club, but insists to this day that he was defending himself in a dangerous environment.
During a trial that the mainstream dubbed “the Puffy Trial,” Shyne granted a historic cover-story interview to this very magazine, to discuss the frustrations and disappointments that led to a parting of ways with his high-profile mentor and codefendant. He bared his soul, but refused to “snitch” or detail the circumstances that led to him firing his weapon. “I’m a little bit heated right now,” he fumed in June 2001. “Watching niggas just rattin’ and watching niggas lie. Ain’t one nigga come up in the courtroom and just told the truth, ya know what I’m sayin’? Ain’t one nigga come up in there and say, Yeah, he pulled out his gun. He fired in the air after them kids shot at him. Ain’t one nigga do that.”
Shyne’s been in prison for almost five years now, but his presence is still felt in today’s hip-hop through the music of a new generation of stars. Shout-outs have been plentiful from the likes of The Game, Kanye West and Juelz Santana. And it’s not like the guy hasn’t remained relevant on his own merit. Two years ago, he pulled a major coup from inside his cell block, striking a multimillion-dollar deal with Island/Def Jam for his independent imprint, Gangland Records. The buzz on his second album, Godfather Buried Alive, was tremendous as Shyne single-handedly engineered a mega–press run (magazine covers, TV interviews) that even the most diligent publicist would have had trouble orchestrating. Soon, however, the air would be taken out of his tires.
When the powers that be got wind of Prisoner Barrow’s movements, they were far from pleased. They immediately shut down his phone privileges and put him in solitary confinement. Later, the New York State government found him in violation of the Son of Sam law, which prevents a prisoner from profiting from his or her crime. Suddenly the man who appeared to have conquered the world from behind bars was disciplined and silenced—until now.
Having retained new legal representation, Shyne is challenging the State’s decision to freeze his assets, and fighting for release as soon as possible. Today, two years after his last interview, Shyne discusses his legal situation, his current career status, his mistakes, his regrets, his goals, his joys and his pains. And, oh yeah, his “beef” with 50 Cent.
There are many rappers who’ve sold many more records. But still, five years since freedom, Shyne remains one of hip-hop’s most intriguing figures. Let ’em know, ’Po!
You haven’t done an interview since 2004’s Godfather Buried Alive press campaign. What are your feelings today, looking back at that project and all the craziness that surrounded it?
GF was just something for the die-hard Shyne fans, something to hold on to until it’s really time for me to touch the streets. I read some things where they say you prepare yourself for luck when you prepare yourself for fortune. I don’t watch TV. I wasn’t listenin’ to the radio. I was just in here, you dig? That was my dream. That was my vision—that after the whole Sean Combs thing, I would never have to work for anybody again. I had my dream. My dream was Gangland, my dream was autonomy. I didn’t do no press for three years. Nothin’. Didn’t talk to nobody, no visits, ain’t see my moms. Nothin’! I was just in here, goin’ through it.
Then suddenly you were everywhere. Why do you think the attention was so massive?
I can’t put my finger on it. It’s certain things that happen on this earth where you just can’t explain it. Right now, it’s been five years—and that was two years ago. Who’s to say that after three years people even care? Especially when you’re not there, you not physical, they can’t touch you, they can’t feel you. So all of that right there? That’s outta my hands. No marketing genius, no type of power broker put that together. That’s somethin’ that’s got nothin’ to do with human form.
There was a lot of drama around the time of the album’s release, right?
Yeah, we didn’t go through the proper channels. You don’t get money on somebody’s block without talkin’ to them first. I just went ahead and did everything—interviews and all that without [permission]. I was on 60 Minutes, I was everywhere, I was middle-America. So when you middle-America people up here, the commissioner, the superintendent, they’re gonna hear about you on MTV. And they’re like, Who’s this guy Shyne in your jail? I think it’s the way that I did it. Like, right now, I got permission for you to come in here. I’m not doin’ anything wrong. But before, a lot of the things that I did, I didn’t get permission. So they was like, Hold on, how is he gonna do these things in jail? I’m still an inmate. But just to be clear, because I had violated some rules, I went to the box, they shut my phone down. So I wasn’t able to do nothin’. I was supposed to call 106 & Park, I was supposed to call TRL. So that’s when the project really stopped.
After the first single, “Jimmy Choo,” dropped?
Not even. The first week the album dropped, August 10, everything shut down. I got locked up like a couple days after that—in the hole. Six months. You locked down for 23 hours a day. No commissary, no nothin’. All you get is a few showers a week. When you go in a cage, you got nothin’ but mail, and if you lucky enough to get some reading materials.
That must have been crazy to go from the highs of getting ready to release such a highly anticipated album, and then suddenly everything is put to a halt.
You gotta pay the price, and that’s life, you dig? I never seen nobody on this earth that don’t go through it. Bill Gates is gettin’ washed up by Apple and Google and all those dudes right now, and he’s doin’ nothing. Gotta go through it, you understand what I’m talkin’ about.
Did you see it coming? Did you think you were gonna be punished for your actions?
I mean, like I said, I was naive. I didn’t come out like, Yo, I was gon’ be the most talked-about, highest-profiled rapper in Middle America. I didn’t think that, you dig? I thought I was just gonna put a little record out, and nobody would know. And when it happened, you know, it be what it be.
Continue reading this feature in the May 2006 issue of XXL (#80).