Philadelphia rapper Dark Lo, whose up-and-coming label was decimated by a federal drug conspiracy case that put its biggest star behind bars last year, was sentenced to 7½ years in prison on Friday for threatening a witness in the case.
The 39-year-old artist, whose legal name is Charles Salley, said he never meant to intimidate anyone and apologized to the court for warning a government witness that he might be “stabbed up” in prison if he testified against Salley’s labelmate and fellow rap star Abdul “AR-Ab” West in his 2019 trial.
But U.S. District Judge Mark A. Kearney said Friday that Salley — who pulled himself out of drug dealing and addiction on the streets of West Oak Lane by becoming a rap world phenom — should have known better than most the impact his words could have.
“You’re the wordsmith,” Kearney said. “You chose those words. … You know how to write words to create an effect.”
Salley’s sentence is the latest development in a legal saga that has all but dismantled Original Block Hustlaz, the gangsta rap collective that he and West cofounded.
But even amid the ashes, their legal strife has inspired new rap tracks and music videos, while their dedicated fans have launched hashtag campaigns calling for their release and debated every turn in the case in YouTube videos.
West — by far the group’s most recognizable name whose rap lyrics have drawn accolades from genre heavyweights like Drake and producer Swizz Beatz — was sentenced to 45 years in prison in April for turning the label into a large-scale North Philly drug operation linked to at least two murders.
Salley, who by all accounts had left the drug world and moved to Delaware after stints in prison in his teens and 20s, was one of the label’s few artists to escape prosecution at the time.
But shortly after West’s 2018 arrest, Salley released a track titled “Allegations” blaming the case on “a rat,” who he warned would be hunted down and shot.
Federal authorities put those lyrics under a microscope, saying the threats were more than just street-honed bombast meant to entertain but a warning of very real consequences to anyone who cooperated with their case.
Eventually, the informant was revealed to be Dontez “Taz” Stewart — an OBH groupie Salley had brought into West’s inner circle after meeting him during his earlier days behind bars.
Stewart, who was charged alongside West, also faced murder charges in state court for killing one of OBH’s drug world rivals — a crime West had boasted about in a 2017 music video. He struck a deal to testify in hopes of lessening his sentence in both cases.
But days before Stewart was set to appear in court, he received a letter addressed from “Ron Harvey,” an alias Salley has used in his music career and a reference to one of the founding members of the Philadelphia Black Mafia.
The missive opened with the greeting “Wassup Stewart Little” — a phrase prosecutors interpreted as a play on a reference to the talking mouse protagonist of the 1945 children’s novel Stuart Little and street slang used to refer to government cooperators as “rats.”
It warned that if Stewart testified, he might get stabbed in prison and that Salley would rape the mother of his children while he was behind bars.
When agents confronted Salley about the letter, he immediately confessed but insisted he didn’t mean it as a threat. He explained that he was dismayed to learn that Stewart, whom he considered his protégé, had betrayed him, West, and the other OBH members and simply wanted to warn him of the consequences of that decision.
In court Friday, his lawyer, Jonathan McDonald, urged Kearney to view the threat as an aberration. Despite felony drug convictions in his past, the attorney said, Salley had effectively removed himself from street life for more than a decade. He built a successful business, served as a mentor to other young rap artists, and routinely serves as a speaker for anti-violence groups in the neighborhood where he grew up.
“These are the signs of a man who has matured, learned from mistakes past, and corrected his priorities,” said McDonald.
Prosecutors, though, weren’t so quick to accept that Salley had reversed course.
“It’s not as though Mr. Salley just got up one day and decided to write this letter because he had bad judgment,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin Ashenfelter said. “This was a long time coming, and it started with that track ‘Allegations.’ ”
The sentence Kearney imposed Friday, which also included a $10,000 fine, could have been worse. As part of a deal struck with prosecutors, they agreed to drop a 15-year mandatory minimum gun charge — tied to a firearm agents found in his home at the time of his arrest — in exchange for his guilty plea to witness tampering.
Still, the future of Salley’s career and his label hangs in doubt.
Since his release on bail, he has been recording new music in hopes of providing for his family and fans — enough to feed five new albums, including one set for release after he is scheduled to report to prison in September.
He’s also worried, McDonald said, that he won’t live long enough to see his release. Over the last seven years, Salley has suffered from a stroke, a heart attack, kidney failure, and diabetes. He caught the coronavirus while in custody and has continued to have unexplained seizures.
“He comes [to court] today being unable to wrap his brain around the possibility that he will survive a jail sentence,” McDonald said.
Salley sat at the defense table as his lawyer listed those ailments with his head hung low.
“I just want to apologize,” he said, when it was his turn to address the court. “I take full responsibility for everything.”
For that, Kearney commended him.
“Taking responsibility for your conduct is the adult thing to do,” he said. “It’s not being a snitch. It’s not the wrong thing to do. And those who think otherwise are just waiting for their day in court.”