The misty country road to FCI Loretto, a federal prison in central Pennsylvania, wanders underneath a canopy of pine trees, up a hill, to a collection of low buildings topped by gleaming concertina wire. Most federal lockups look like fortresses. Not Loretto, which has no main gate or guard towers. Loretto is what the Bureau of Prisons classifies as a "low-security" facility, and most of the 1,228 inmates are nonviolent drug offenders.
Inmate #88840-079, John Forte, 27, arrived in June to serve fourteen years for possession with intent to distribute about thirty-one pounds of liquid cocaine, worth $1.5 million. That's the same John Forte who was nominated for a Grammy for his work with the Fugees, toured with Wyclef Jean, recorded with Herbie Hancock, Tricky and Carly Simon, and signed a solo deal with Columbia. His arrest floored the hip-hop community. If you were picking the last rapper to get hit with a drug charge, it would be Forte, a well-read, well-spoken regular at Simon's house on Martha's Vineyard, a musician with far more on his mind than jewelry and guns.
A native of the roughneck Brownsville, Brooklyn, Forte has always been something of a hip-hop anomaly. He won a full scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy, a top-flight -- and quite white -- boarding school in New Hampshire, where he studied violin. After graduating in 1993, Forte spent a brief time at New York University, then dropped out to work A&R at Rawkus Entertainment. Along the way, Forte met Lauryn Hill, joined the Refugee Camp crew, and contributed songs and production work to The Score, the Fugees' 1996 blockbuster. Forte's solo debut, Poly Sci, appeared in 1998.
After the success of the Fugees, Forte lived large in the clubs of New York, Los Angeles, London and Paris, where he was known for dressing sharp and drinking Guinness. "That was where John felt comfortable," a friend recalls. "Having fun, making his connections, living it up." Spying a lady who interested him, Forte would dispatch a member of his posse to inform the lucky lady that John Forte wanted to buy her a drink. "One night John would be having a mellow dinner in the corner of Bowery Bar, another night you'd see him at Cheetah, which is more rough-and-tumble," says Forte's friend, the DJ Mark Ronson. "But you'd never see him dancing on a table and flossing. He was low-key."
Forte had high hopes for Poly Sci, but the record's project manager quit Sony a week before the album was released, and Epic put little cash behind its promotional tour. "We were playing these really ghetto clubs, with bad sound systems," says Jeni Fujita, who sang on the record. Poly Sci sold 79,000 copies. Columbia dropped him. Friends say Forte was crushed and lost faith in his talent. The timing couldn't have been worse. Club life had bled Forte of cash; he couldn't make the $1,350 monthly rent on his two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, and his car was impounded. A proud man, Forte kept friends in the dark. "I had no idea he was short of cash," says Ronson. "He never asked me for money."
Through pals at Exeter, Forte met and befriended Ben Taylor, Carly Simon's son with James Taylor. Forte lived at Simon's Martha's Vineyard estate for six weeks in 1999, staying for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
To make ends meet, Forte spun one night a week at the Manhattan nightclub Veruka, as a celebrity DJ. It was there, one Thursday in 2000, that Forte met a bald-headed thirty-five-year-old drug dealer named Chris Thompson. A native of Jamaica, Thompson needed some new, reliable couriers, preferably female, to handle what he called "stuff." John Forte knew many females.
Alerted by a tipster at a local hotel, police in Harlingen, Texas, stopped two of those young women on July 12th, 2000, as they made their way back to New York. Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Houston opened their suitcases and discovered thirty eight-by-ten freezer packs filled with a bluish-green liquid -- liquid cocaine, a form of the drug favored in the trade because it is difficult for both dogs and X-ray machines to detect.
The DEA made a deal with the couriers, who called Forte in New York. "Put the ice cream in the tub," he said, and told them to fly to Newark International Airport. Cell-phone records show twenty-two calls between Thompson and Forte that day. Agents arrested Forte the next morning at Newark, after he dropped the "ice cream"-filled cases into the trunk of a taxi.
Since then, Forte has maintained that he was only helping Thompson move what he thought were large sums of cash, and that the "cream" he was talking about was merely hip-hop slang for cash. As he said to me, "Some people use the bank, and some people don't."
Simon put $250,000 toward his $650,000 bail. While on supervised release, living at his mother's house in South Brunswick, New Jersey, Forte recorded his second, and best, album to date. I, John waves a permanent goodbye to the club life and imagines a time when hip-hop breaks from gangsta traditions. As Forte would later testify, "I always felt that it was a cop-out to exploit women with the misogynist lyrics. There's a way that you can entice a woman or be suave without calling them a bitch or a ho or degrading them, and I was very much against that, and I was against the gun toting. . . . I saw these kids looking up to these artists and knowing how to recite eight of their songs without knowing how to do their math homework, and that hurt me in my heart."
Early last September, just as Forte completed I, John , his drug-trafficking case came before a federal jury in Houston. Thompson, facing major prison time on a coke rap in Florida -- he was never charged in the Texas deal -- took the stand against his former club-land friend and then went on the lam shortly thereafter, until he was rearrested in Canada in June. On September 6th, Forte's jury reached a verdict: not guilty on a conspiracy charge, guilty of cocaine possession with intent to distribute. If his appeal, filed recently in Texas, fails, John Forte won't taste freedom until 2013.
Forte appeared for our interview wearing a prison-issue dark-green jumpsuit and black boots that looked brand-new. On the day I visited, Forte was into his third week at Loretto after spending a year in a crowded federal detention center in Texas.
"Everyone is in for drugs," Forte said, after a guard removed his handcuffs and patted him down and we took seats in a room set aside for attorney visits. "Maybe one out of every fifty guys I talk to is in for a white-collar crime. The ratio of crack to cocaine is ludicrous. A couple of pebbles are getting these guys fifteen years! Ridiculous!"
Forte is the sort of inmate who tends to seek his own counsel: "I do what they call 'doing time by myself' for the most part, where the environment is friendly and guys are supportive and everybody's cool, but I don't travel in one circle. I don't have a clique." He lives in an open cubicle with six other men. Loretto being low-security, Forte can stay up all night if he wants, and can even play acoustic guitar: "You can play into the wee hours as long as you're not jamming out and rockin' hard. You can go into the day room at three o'clock in the morning and write a letter, or make yourself tea." At the commissary, like the other inmates, Forte is entitled to spend $290 a month, not including stamps. He gets 300 phone minutes per month, as well as frequent contact visits.
Besides taking a creative-writing course -- reading and writing poetry -- Forte spends his time in prison teaching other inmates as they study for their GEDs. He seemed serene inside Loretto, relaxed and resigned, although his eyes tightened when talk turned to drug dealer Chris Thompson. "He did what he had to do in order to get enough leeway to run, to try to live his life as a free man," Forte said. "I hate what he did -- told them everything that they wanted to hear."
"How did Chris act toward you in the courtroom?" I asked.
"I looked at him as soon as he walked in, and he looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. I don't know if it was an 'I'm sorry you're here' type of look or 'I'm sorry for what I'm about to do to you' look." Forte swatted at a persistent fly and shook his head. "Man, I never even did cocaine. I'd never even been to Houston, and I was tried and convicted down there, like I had firm roots planted. Or maybe I was just the dark cowboy passing through."
Carly Simon, who continues to believe in Forte's innocence, put up money for his appeal. "Judges have lost a lot of their power because of mandatory minimums," she says. "I think the judge in John's case was extremely frustrated by having to go by them and likely would have given John a much lesser sentence if it wasn't for the mandatory minimums." Meanwhile, I, John has sold a scant 7,200 units to date. "Promotion has been a huge stumbling block," says Chuck Mitchell, co-founder of Forte's label, Transparent Music. "I've never had an artist who's been incarcerated before."
Before a guard patted him down again and led him away, I asked Forte where he'd gone wrong, what mistake he had made. "I allowed elements to be near me -- not drugs but people," he said. "That's what caught me up. I was too accessible. I was too here, I was too there. The price the government wants me to pay for that is fourteen years."