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John Forte’s Rap

An exclusive jailhouse talk with the Fugee songwriter

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.”

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