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How Philly hip-hop was shaped by the city's high incarceration rate

"That's the story of Philadelphia hip-hop: extraordinary talent trying to transcend difficult circumstances."

Rapper Meek Mill arrives at the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia on Nov. 6, 2017.
Rapper Meek Mill arrives at the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia on Nov. 6, 2017.Read moreMatt Rourke

Oschino Vasquez swears it's bigger than Meek Mill.

Of course, that's been a common refrain among protesters who say Mill's two- to four-year prison sentence reflects systemic disparities in the criminal justice system.

But coming from Vasquez, it's a perspective worth noting: Although once Mill's mentor, he no longer likes the guy, so he has no skin in the game.

And as a former member of State Property Crew, the storied rap collective, Vasquez knows the system in which Mill came up. He knows the talent that was developing in Philadelphia around 2000, and how a significant number of those  — the ones who found success just before the rise of YouTube — were interrupted by changing music trends, a failing education system, a lack of major-label access, and, most significant, mass incarceration.

The music scene has been irrevocably changed.

"Meek is a special talent, as much as he gets on my nerves," said Vasquez, who was recently released from jail on drug charges. "There's a lot of special talents in prison, too."

On Nov. 6,  Common Pleas Court Judge Genece E. Brinkley sentenced the rapper born Robert Williams to two to four years in prison for parole violations. After a 2008 drug and gun conviction, he served eight months in prison and had been on probation since his release in 2009.

Look at the national hip-hop scene, and the impact and influence of mass incarceration are apparent. It's routine to hear rappers rhyme about experiences in the penal system. And, of course, there are a number of successful rappers who have had prison stints while in the public eye. T.I. was famously sent to jail in 2010, months after being released, also because of parole violations.

Philadelphia's hip-hop scene is no outlier. The city has the highest incarceration rate per capita of America's 10 largest cities, and a 2015 New York Times report crunched census numbers on imprisonment and premature death, finding that 36,000 black men in Philly were missing from the population.

Vasquez doesn't know too many black men in his life who haven't been incarcerated, "It's not just rap, it's everybody," Vasquez insisted. "It only matters now because it's Meek."

Around 2000, against the backdrop of a climbing incarceration rate, the city was in its battle-rapping heyday: State Property began to achieve mainstream success, and rival crew Major Figgas broke through on urban radio. That inspired an explosion of battles and ciphers — circles for freestyle rapping — and, with them, a long list of emcees who quickly gained local renown: Tech 9, Joey Jihad, Reed Dollaz, Chic Raw, Cyssero. People would watch the battles live, but more fans saw them on DVDs, and, for a time, on YouTube when it launched in 2005.

Around the same time, a dropout crisis disproportionately impacted the city's black and Latino male students. Less education meant fewer options, said local battle legend Gillie da King, formerly of Major Figgas.

Emcees weren't quite sure how to navigate the industry, either. "So, a guy … could be real good at rap, but if he don't know the business, he just get tired of it. Like, 'Man this ain't working,' and start hustling," Vasquez said. "Because one of the main things in rap is you braggadocious. You can't be bragging without no money. So a lot of people in rap sell drugs to keep up with … their style, their swag. One hand washes the other."

Some of the period's biggest talents were locked up: The rapper Cassidy, who muscled his way up to a record deal through radio competitions, was sentenced for involuntary manslaughter in 2006. Chic Raw was sent to federal prison in 2007. Prominent battler Hollowman was convicted of murder in 2013.  Joey Jihad was put on cell restriction at SCI-Camp Hill after a crowd surrounded him while he was rapping.

This is where the teen Mill sharpened his sword.

John Morrison, today a musician, writer, and host of a local hip-hop podcast, was an active emcee at that time: "I know for a fact that a lot of the people who were brilliant artists wound up catching cases right around the time that they were bubbling in the streets."

"It's just a cycle," Gillie said. In 2007, Gillie was arrested on drug and conspiracy charges that were later dismissed. "Sad as it is, it's going to keep going."

Lehigh University professor James Braxton Peterson researches the prison-industrial complex and hip-hop. Having interviewed local rappers during the early 2000s, Peterson believes both the struggles of that era and Mill's trajectory are emblematic of local rap.

"The neighborhoods out of which Meek Mill emerges have concentrated poverty, the erosion of infrastructure [and] housing, and the degradation of the public school system," he said. "These conditions are the predicate for crime. I don't want to take away from their agency. People have to make choices. But to divorce that from the social and cultural context, I think, is a mistake."

"That's the story of Philadelphia hip-hop: extraordinary talent trying to transcend difficult circumstances," he said.

Mill was arrested after an airport fight in March, and for reckless driving in October. He also tested positive for Percocet in a mandatory drug test in January. During a home visit, his probation officer noticed fast-flush pills. Mill was ordered to enroll in a treatment program, which he completed in June.

"It's an interesting and sad thought experiment to see someone [succeed], still be authentic to the communities that he comes from, but still find it difficult to disentangle himself from the criminal justice system," Peterson said.

Mill was arrested in 2008 shortly after T.I. signed him to his label, Grand Hustle. And although Mill's career stalled for a couple of years — T.I. has blamed his own imprisonment — things restarted by 2011, when he began releasing a string of hits with Rick Ross-led Maybach Music.

Other famed battlers from Mill's time weren't as fortunate. And the impact of mass incarceration was deeply felt because the scene was "hyperlocal, rooted in communities, and not necessarily privileged to have national attention," Morrison said. "It'll stall a local scene if you just have the best of the best being taken out."

Morrison isn't convinced  Mill can bounce back from this jail sentence. "It's kind of an analogy for the stunted development of that Philly rap [era.] We can't get over, no matter what."