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

Whatever his recording methods, The Last Chair Violinist peaked at number 3 on the top independent album chart and number 5 on the top rap album chart - placing Coy just behind the likes of Lil Wayne, T.I., and DJ Khaled and ahead of releases from The Game and Lil' Keke. Coy says the album sold about 150,000 units -- 100,000 alone in the first six to eight months.

"I have no idea as to his mind set or method of making music while incarcerated," says Lewis who, along with representing Coy, was also the one-time legal counsel for the late Ken Lay of Enron. "I know Coy to be very creative and resourceful, so I am not surprised that he has been able to continue making music."

Tracking potential profits from incarcerated artists is difficult enough, but Coy's case is even trickier. His business relationship with Universal ended even before his arrest, according to company spokesperson Peter Lofrumento. All his subsequent albums have been released through Dope House, which is essentially run by Coy's family. Since he went to jail, the small label has had to readjust its distribution priorities. You'd be hard-pressed to find a Best Buy willing to carry a Dope House album. Instead, the company has been leaning on contracts with about 2,000 area Valero gas stations and quick-stop stores. But in this age of one-off digital downloads, most artists depend heavily on tour revenues -- and Coy isn't likely to play a live show anytime soon.

"Without Carlos, we're not probably making half of what we were making," Sylvia Coy said a Blog Talk Radio interview last year. Still, Carlos Coy says that Dope House brings in about $80,000 a month in total album sales, with about $10,000 of that coming from SPM albums.

"This is a family operation so my best guess is the money stays in-house," says Andy Kahan, victim advocate for the city of Houston. "He's their bread ticket."

***

SPM's story highlights just how much fans are willing to overlook when their hip-hop heroes find themselves in prison on serious charges. Tupac Shakur's prison sentence for sexual abuse in 1994 didn't stop his album Me Against the World from reaching number 1 on the Billboard charts. In 2010, Lil Wayne became the second artist to accomplish that feat when his album I Am Not A Human Being hit number 1 on the charts after he'd pled guilty to attempted criminal possession of a weapon.

Not everyone can maintain the kind of celebrity Shakur and Lil Wayne had during their respective incarcerations. But over the past 20 years, at least 23 other successful hip-hop artists have served six or more months in prison, and at least 11 of them had one or more album in the Billboard200 during or immediately after their incarcerations. Seven of those albums cracked the top 10, and most of the others reached the top 10 on the hip-hop charts, none peaking lower than number 25.

On a moral level, it may be hard to understand why fans would continue to support an artist convicted of serious crimes. But according to science, the answer is simple: The brain can't say no.

"Because music is so powerful, you might not care about other aspects such as whether the person who made the music is a nice guy or not," says Robert Zatorre, a neurologist at the Montreal Neurological Institute, which focuses on the effect that music has on the brain. "You might just say, 'Okay, I might never want to spend time with this fellow because he's a nasty, violent criminal, but I really like the music so I will put up with it.' We see this in other domains, too, where people are taken in by a very strong personality and they minimize the bad things that go along with that person."

To be sure, there are plenty of artists -- such as Ja Rule, Da Brat, Remy Ma and G. Dep -- who struggled to maintain mainstream traction during or after their prison sentences. But others actually grew more popular while incarcerated: Shyne, Pimp C, and Gucci Mane each earned their highest-ever chart positions for releases they put out during or after prison. Other hip-hop artists who enjoyed chart success during or after prison sentences, such as T.I. and Lil' Kim, saw their popularity either decline or plateau as their jail time receded further into the past.

Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, insists that prison is likely to harm artists more than help them in the long run. "It's a horrible thing for their career," Charnas says, "especially in today's market where you have to be out there making money and doing shows. Does the lore of going to prison make you more exotic in some ways or give you more street cred? Yeah, maybe, but how long does that stuff last?"

Attorney Stacey Richman disagrees. She's long been the go-to criminal defense lawyer for hip-hop stars in legal trouble, with a client list that includes Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Ja Rule, and Kid Cudi. Richman insists that when it comes to fan devotion, she hasn't seen a prison sentence produce a drop-off for any of her mainstream clients. "When Wayne was in, I had to take away body bags of fan mail," she says. She insists artists should be allowed to produce music in prison, arguing that it's good for the entire music industry. "The artist who can reach their fans in such a manner is truly an incredible gift."

For now, Coy's new releases continue to be welcomed by an aggressive fan base that continues to proclaim his innocence. The "Free SPM" campaign -- which has taken the form of shirts, hoodies, songs, mix tapes, albums, and shows -- lends the artist considerable digital footprint. You can't go to the comments section under any of Coy's YouTube videos without finding pages of discussion about his case. Leading the brigade is SPM Aftermath, a website detailing every update about Coy since his conviction. Jay Armijo, the site's editor, has posted numerous letters she has sent to the Harris County District Attorney's Office, demanding a reexaminination of Coy's case. She's even posted personal letters SPM sent from the Allred Unit. Like many others who believe in Coy's innocence, Armijo says he has a right to put out albums during his incarceration.

"Until TDCJ publicly reexamines the many problems with Carlos Coy's case, I hope he continues to release music to remind the world that innocent men do go to prison, and to fight for his freedom," Armijo says.

***

The visitation room where I'm sitting looks much like an elementary-school cafeteria with short brown tables and classroom chairs. Black flies buzz around the narrow hallway on my side of the visitation window, often landing on the glass, no closer than I am to Coy.

He's happier today than he ever was as the former SPM, a persona he now calls "the saddest man on the earth." Earlier this month, Coy started a Twitter account to promote his upcoming album. Behind the glass, he spits out new verses he's been working on and describes how he will be vindicated one day. His rosy view of the future may be far-fetched: Given the nature of his conviction, odds are Coy will not be granted parole when his first review comes 12 years from now. And his chances at scoring another county jail stay are slim, given his proven ability to capitalize on the lawyer-client privacy law.

Coy rubs away more sweat from his nose. If he serves his full sentence, he'll be 76 by the time he's released. But for now, he remains one of the most recognizable Mexican-American hip-hop artists in the game, and the future of his music is looking bright. He may be housed with some of the most dangerous men in Texas at the Allred Unit, including 400-plus other inmates convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a child. But for Coy, the music isn't stopping. Not just yet.

"I didn't fight the case like I should have," Coy says. "But [people] have to get used to it, because we have four albums that are off the chain, that no one is doing, that will come out - whether I see them drop while I'm alive or not."

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Timothy Bella is a journalist living in New York City.

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