71/yayo2.jpgIt’s one of those April days, the kind that spring often promises but New York City rarely delivers. Warm enough to melt away memories of the winter’s blizzards, bright and hopeful enough to make even a Southside hardrock relax a little. And Tony Yayo is good, baby.

He’s been out of jail for almost a year now, working on Thoughts of a Predicate Felon, the solo joint that had been on hold since his 2002 imprisonment. A couple of weeks ago, he and 50 Cent turned up the drama with “I Run New York,” their latest salvo against certain Terror Squad, D-Block and Murder Inc. representatives. The first few tracks from the album leaked a few days ago. For now, though, he’s not thinking about music or his next career move. He’s thinking lunch—he needs his Olive Garden fix. So, we’re out on West 31st Street in Manhattan, walking toward his man’s car, when homegirl rolls up. “Tony Yaaaayo.”

She’s walking as slowly as she says his name, head cocked to make sure it’s him. When she doesn’t see recognition on his face, she turns mock-indignant. “What, you gon’ act like you don’t know me?”

Yayo looks at her, offers a hesitant grin. “I don’t know you.”

“Dre’s baby mama…from 134!” (The reference is to 134th Street, the strip in Jamaica, Queens where Yayo used to grind.)

“Oh, okay,” he says, noncommittally. “How you doin’?”

“Don’t tell me you went and got an attitude, Mr. Superstar,” she says, smiling. “You was real cool.”

He smiles back fully now. “Never, ma. I’m still that same nigga from the block. Just got a lil’ bigger head.”

71/yayo2.jpgThat’s the thing about the man born Marvin Bernard, The Talk of New York, the glue of G-Unit, the one whose incarceration touched off the strangest T-shirt craze since airbrushed zodiac signs. The last few years have been enough to test any man, but Tony Yayo’s pulled through. It didn’t change him, and it sho’nuff didn’t make him doubt himself. Nothing, nothing is going to be able to do that.

On the off chance you’ve been living in a cave for the past three years, let’s run through Tony Yayo 101, the condensed version. He’s rolled with 50 since the krills-pumpin’ days, and the Trackmasters-Columbia days, when “How to Rob” was hurting feelings all over the city. Then, right around the time 50 signed with Shady Records in 2002, Yayo got picked up for a homicide in his neighborhood. He had nothing to do with the killing, but the Ruger P89 he was packing violated the probation arrangement from an old crack case, so eventually he was remanded to deal with a gun charge.

Instead of appearing in court, though, he opted to stay on the street, remaining low-pro for the rest of the year, bouncing around town, even going to Spain for Eminem’s performance at MTV Europe’s Music Awards. (How does a man with a warrant get a passport? By using his brother’s name—but more on that later.) On Dec. 31 of that year, though, back in NYC, the fun stopped when Yayo rode with 50 and Lloyd Banks to perform at the Copacabana. Cops searched their car, a gun was found, and all three were brought in to the 10th Precinct station. Unfortunately, the warrant for Yayo’s arrest meant he couldn’t post 10 large and waltz out as his partners did.

When you’re looking at a trifecta of probation violation, gun possession and bail-jumping, it’s a fair bet you won’t be seeing daylight for a while. Fortunately, a good lawyer and a barrage of support from Shady and Interscope Records—including letters from Eminem and Dr. Dre—convinced the DA that Yayo had a promising career ahead of him. So, what could have been a three-to-nine turned into a much more manageable one-year bid. With that, it was off to Rikers Island, where Yayo sat for five months, writing rhymes to songs on the radio, staying out of trouble and enjoying the few perks that well-connected prisoners can enjoy: Kentucky Fried Chicken, Alizé, even weed. “COs is regular people like me and you,” Yayo says with half a wink. “Read between the lines.”

Meanwhile, G-Unit was changing. Young Buck came on board, and the whispers started about Yayo being replaced. “A lot of people thought the Young Buck situation came because of me,” Yayo says. “But 50 wanted to sign Buck ever since we started the mixtapes and Buck was down with Juvenile. Me and Buck is cool. A lot of people say, ‘Yo, Buck’s taking your place.’ I don’t listen to that shit. 50 got me right. For every show that they did on the Rock the Mic Tour, I got paid. I was gettin’ checks in jail, so it didn’t really matter to me what anybody was doin’.”

The crew held down Yayo in other ways, too. Like at the Grammy Awards, for instance. Someone from Shady Records called and told Yayo to watch the broadcast, promising, “There’s gonna be a surprise.” So, Tony changed the channel in the dayroom, and the whole 60-bed dorm of C73 2 Lower sat there and watched Eminem take the stage in a T-shirt that read, in huge letters, “Free Yayo.” “I went nuts,” says Yayo. “It was the beginning of my career, and [the Rikers administration] didn’t know how big I was on the streets. That’s when people really started watchin’ me in the building.”

“I’ve been to Africa, Brazil, Iraq,” says Banks. “And when I say, ‘Do y’all know who Tony Yayo is?’ they say, ‘Free Yayo!’ And they’ve never seen his face before. That’s the size of the movement.”

Soon after the Grammys, Yayo headed upstate to finish his sentence at Lakeview Shock, a military-style facility. He calls it one of the hardest things he ever did. “If you not strong up there,” he says, tapping his head, “don’t do Shock. It’s a mental thing. They fuck with you to see how you react. Your hangers gotta be two fingers apart. Your shoes have to be in order, laces tucked and tied, bed has hospital corners. If your shit is not up to par, it’ll be trashed. When you wake up in the morning, you gotta get dressed, shave clean, brush your teeth, have your shoes on, everything ready, outdoors ready to work out in two minutes. If you not dressed, you in trouble—they’ll put you outside in a blizzard with shorts on. You go through that shit, you never wanna get locked up again.”

So, when he was finally released in early 2004, and 50 and G-Unit President Sha Money XL braved the snowy tundra to pick him up, it was on. “As soon as I stepped out the door,” Tony remembers, “Sha threw a chinchilla on my shoulders. Banks had bought me rings, 50 threw the Jacob on my wrist. I couldn’t believe it. When I left, we had chains, but nothin’ like that.” They flew home, partied at a Manhattan steakhouse, and Yayo jetted to a hotel to meet the two ladies Banks had lined up for him. He was finally free, just like on the T-shirt. That was Jan. 9.

Jan. 10, he was back inside.