Should Hip-Hop Artists Be Allowed to Release Albums From Jail?

For a musician with a tough, street-smart image, a prison sentence can actually boost popularity. But should a convicted felon like Carlos Coy -- aka, rapper South Park Mexican -- be able to generate new hits from behind bars?

spm.jpgCarolos Coy before his incarceration, and during a recent prison interview with the author (Left: Wikimedia Commons, right: Timothy Bella)

Condensation trickles down the window that separates me from a ghost. On his side of the glass, Carlos Coy wipes away the moisture that has fogged up his view in the cramped, white-walled, 6-by-4 visitation room. He apologizes, acknowledging that he just got done playing basketball in weather that's approaching 110 degrees in the maximum-security confines of the Iowa Park, Texas, facility, which fluctuates between being the first- and second-largest prison in the state. His white prisoner uniform is starting to become faded, and white hairs are beginning to bristle from his shaved head. His face is skinnier than it was during his prime, but his thick frame is similar to the way I remember it.

Staring back at me is a former figure of my adolescence; someone whose singles were fixtures at middle school dances in suburban Houston all those Friday nights ago. On this sweltering August day in North Texas, however, the man across from me is 10 years into a 45-year sentence for sexually assaulting a child. He's also ready to talk about his upcoming album. It won't be the first time Coy has released new material from prison as South Park Mexican, or SPM -- the stage name that made him both famous and infamous.

"Part of the real punishment is to be taken away from your livelihood," Coy says, acknowledging that his own livelihood hasn't been entirely taken away during his incarceration. Through his appeals process, he was granted permission to record music under a privacy law in the county jail system. But he's quick to point out that he's far from a free man. "I'm still the most watched inmate in Texas," he insists. "I don't think any inmate in TDCJ is as watched as I am."

Coy's rise and ugly fall remains a subject of fascination for both his fans and detractors. After dropping out of high school as a 17-year-old freshman, earning his GED, and failing classes at junior college, Coy turned to an array of odd jobs before settling into rap. His first recordings were Christian rap, which didn't excite Houston crowds the way he had hoped. In 1995, Coy founded Dope House Records with his brother, Arthur, and chose to rap about life on the streets rather than his faith.

In the 90s and early 2000s, the Houston hip-hop scene was coming into its own, and hip-hop radio station 97.9 KBXX was willing to play local, independent talent. "[Coy] was the Mexican, for real," says Matt Sonzala, a Houston hip-hop historian and former DJ for 90.1 KPFT, a Houston underground radio station at the time. "He became an anomaly. When he came out, it was crazy."

Gaining the support of DJ Screw, the preeminent figure in Houston's hip-hop scene, Coy began to rise. Newsweek and Texas Monthly lauded him as one of the next great Hispanic musicians, and his singles started getting constant airplay in Houston and around Texas. His first handful of albums sold more than 1.5 million units, a tremendous number for an independent artist. In 2000, he signed a deal with Universal. It seemed that nothing could stop him.

But in April 2000, Jill Odom, then 20, sued Coy over child support for a child he'd fathered when Odom was 14. Coy admitted to the Chronicle that he was the father of the boy, and according to public records, he paid $28,000 he owed in child support, an additional $3,500 for Odom's birth expenses and the boy's college fund, and $900 a month in child support going forward.

"I made the mistake of having a child with an underage girl. That much of I'm guilty of," he says. "I was 22 and smoking formaldehyde at the time."

The backbreaker, however, was yet to come. On Labor Day Weekend of 2001, a 9-year-old family friend spent the night with Coy's 6-year-old daughter. As the Houston Press detailed in 2002, Coy and the two girls watched Texas Chainsaw Massacre -- a movie Coy had picked out. During the movie, Coy allegedly began to touch the 9-year-old in inappropriate ways. Later, when Coy's daughter was asleep, her friend remained awake, suffering from insomnia. She would later testify that Coy came into the room and molested her. When it was over, she asked Coy to drive her home. He allegedly told her not to tell anyone what had happened.

Almost four weeks after the sleepover incident, Coy was arrested. In the weeks that followed, about seven other sexual assault cases came out against Coy, including an accusation from a 14-year-old girl that Coy had picked her up from her home at 3:30 a.m. one night and taken her to a motel for unprotected, consensual sex. His image took a beating, but he thought avoid prison time based on the lack of physical evidence, since the prosecution relied mostly on a 9-year-old's testimony.

He was wrong. In closing remarks after he was sentenced to 45 years in prison, Judge Mark Ellis said, "In my 17 years on this bench I have seen a lot of sex offenders, and there is one thing they all have in common: They are all liars, and you are no exception," Ellis told Coy at the conclusion of the 2002 trial. "You've lied to this court. You've lied to your family. You've lied to your fans with your so-called positive raps when your own life wasn't right."

"He's guilty, he's more guilty than any suspect I've ever worked before," Houston Police Department investigator Heidi Ruiz told the Houston Chronicle at the conclusion of Coy's trial in May 2002. "He got everything he deserves."

Sitting behind the window, Coy lowers his head. Yet, he defiantly maintains his innocence with the 9-year-old girl, calling the charges "bullshit." He's familiar with the case against Jerry Sandusky and the renewed national outrage against child molesters. "It disgusts me and would disgust anybody," says Coy. "Sandusky is a sick man." Coy insists that Houston police wanted to bring him down and squelch the increased influence he had earned in the community. "Nobody knows what happened and no one tried to prove [the allegations], as the system knew it was BS," he says. "I was the deer with the most antlers. It didn't matter if it wasn't hunting season."

But 10 years after the damning allegations filed against him, Coy and the SPM brand remain alive in the Houston scene. During Coy's time in prison, Dope House has produced two albums, three best-of albums, and a couple of advertised never-before-released tracks, with another four albums on the way.

"I think SPM is still as relevant now as he was 10 years ago," says Dat Boi T, a fledgling Latino hip-hop artist in the Houston scene, who cites Coy's work as a blueprint for success for today's aspiring Latino artists. "He's pretty much a Latin version of Tupac for us."

***

The music isn't stopping, because no one can stop it. In 2006, Coy and Dope House released an album of previously recorded songs. Titled When Devils Strike, the album peaked at number 2 on Billboard's Top American Independent Album chart and number 6 on the Top Rap Album chart.

The album's release met with some criticism from city officials intimately familiar with the case. "If people want to buy the record, well, that's just a sad commentary that people are interested in what a child molester has to say," Assistant District Attorney Denise Oncken told the Houston Chronicle in October 2006. "He was convicted of it. The jury found that he abused a 9-year-old little girl."

Wiping more sweat off his brow, Coy grows excited behind the glass window when asked about what's to come. For an inmate with another 12 years left until he's up for parole and another 35 years left on his total prison sentence, he's noticeably tickled about the future. He talks of the four album projects he has ready to roll out - the first of four coming between the end of the year and the beginning of 2013.

Coy's productivity behind bars has raised questions for his supporters and critics alike. After the release of When Devils Strike, fans on the Internet speculated that some of the tracks had been recorded in prison, not before Coy's incarceration as he claimed. Then, during an appeals process in 2006, Coy was transferred from state prison to Harris County Jail and managed to find a legal loophole that allowed him to record new material -- something he was forbidden to do while in state custody. "We did a really good job of doing songs in county," he tells me. "We did 50 songs in 2006."

Coy says that his lawyer, Chip B. Lewis, told county jail personnel that the songs were for "legal purposes," Coy says. From there, it was all about increasing his song catalogue for potential future releases to not only fulfill his contractual obligations to Universal but to also help keep Dope House afloat.

It's still unclear how Coy managed to squeeze so much music through a small legal loophole. "The Harris County Jail does not allow inmates to record audio or to possess audio recording equipment for commercial purposes -- or for that matter, any other foreseeable reason," said Alan Bernstein, director of public affairs for the Harris County Sheriff's Office, in an email. "However, attorney-client conferences that take place in booths set aside for that purpose are not monitored by our personnel because of legal privacy law. Therefore it is conceivable that Mr. Coy's attorneys recorded him." Bernstein added: "Some of us here are aware of the artistic legacy of the artist formerly known as South Park Mexican."

Yet Coy told me he recorded the songs on his own using a pocket studio, a device no bigger than a child's lunchbox. In a November 2008 interview from a payphone, Coy told television station KHOU that he, along with other inmates, had used wool blankets to create a makeshift soundproof recording area. Around the same time, Dope House officials also told the television station that some of the songs featured on the upcoming album The Last Chair Violinist would be jailhouse recordings. After the album came out, Dope House would not confirm whether any jailhouse recordings were actually used. (As of publication, Dope House officials had yet to return multiple requests to schedule an interview for this article.) Later in his incarceration, after he was transferred back to state prison, Coy says he was transferred to administrative segregation for testing positive for marijuana use and being in possession of an MP3 player that had the ability to act as a digital recorder.

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Timothy Bella is a journalist living in New York City.

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