How Drakeo the Ruler Made His New Album in Jail While Awaiting Trial
Drakeo the Ruler speaks with Complex over the phone from jail about his new album, criminal justice reform, police, and protests unfolding across America.
Photo by Deawnne Buckmire
The nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd are challenging innumerable incidences of police violence as much as they are centuries of racism, socioeconomic disparity, and the injustices of the U.S. criminal justice system. In Los Angeles, where the DA has prosecuted only a small percentage of the LAPD officers who have killed over 600 civilians since 2012, you can see many of these deeply rooted American wrongs in the injustices imposed on 26-year-old Darrell Caldwell. Most know him as Drakeo the Ruler.
He is the mud-walking slang maven from South Central, narrating Beverly Hills shopping sprees and home burglaries with as much original diction as E-40. On projects like 2017’s Cold Devil, he whipped foreign cars down a new lane of L.A. street rap, creating the dark and menacing songs he called “nervous music.” Countless imitators adopt his cadences and sound, but none baptized in the syrupy, red-purple slick left in his wake have matched his nonchalant swagger or singular lexicon.
Since early 2018, however, Drakeo hasn’t been able to enjoy his rap celebrity, the joy of playing with his infant son, or the luxuries his success has afforded him. Instead, he and his Stinc Team crew have been in jail and court, fighting for their freedom. Arrested for an alleged connection to a 2016 shooting, Drakeo was found not guilty of murder and attempted murder. Still, he sits in Men’s Central Jail, awaiting what’s essentially a double jeopardy murder trial that could end in a life sentence. (You can read more about it here and here.) COVID-19 has delayed multiple trial dates and ended all visitation, but, somehow, Drakeo hasn’t despaired. Instead, he recorded a new project called Thank You For Using GTL over the phone.
“I wouldn’t advise you to try to make a jail mixtape if you don’t have any money. You have to pay for the phone time,” Drakeo says over the phone. “My tape has 18 songs. Imagine if it keeps fucking up and doing all this other shit, you might have to use the phone for a whole fucking week doing this shit. It might be $200 a day.”
In Drakeo’s case, that money goes to Global Tel Link, one of many privately-owned companies that makes millions providing heavily taxed communication to the incarcerated. “That’s why I did the tape,” Drakeo jokes. “If [GTL] going to get money off of me and letting me know my call is recorded, I might as well record a song.”
Fortunately, Drakeo’s rapping ability and his synergy with JoogSzn, who produced most of the album, enabled him to record the bulk of it in 36 hours over a period of two weeks. With help from engineer Mixed by Navin, Drakeo’s vocals sound clearer than those on many prison rap albums, and there are studio-recorded features from ALLBLACK, Rio Da Young OG, and Lil 9. Though Thanks for Using GTL discusses the realities of Drakeo’s carceral life in spots, in many ways this is still the Drakeo of old. In his mind, and for his listeners, he is free, draped in designers on the way to the strip club as he laughs at comments on Instagram and YouTube. This is to L.A. what Mac Dre’s Back N Da Hood was to Vallejo in ‘92. Both regionally influential rappers, Drakeo and Dre were essentially imprisoned for their lyrics just as their respective ascendance became undeniable, forced to release tapes to remind the world that they still exist. The parallels are as unfortunate as they are uncanny, another reminder of how little progress we’ve made.
Despite the weight of his impending trial—the date of which may have changed again—and the infuriating and numerous wrongs perpetrated against him, Drakeo constantly laughs while talking to me and Joog. He’s happy to be recording, pleased with the protests, and forever entertained by the imitators and the haters. For just over an hour, we discussed the difficulties of making Thank You For Using GTL, his life in jail, the protests, the DA and LAPD, and so much more. There is no monetary equivalent to what this phone call really cost Drakeo, but GTL gladly put a price on it.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. To illustrate a fraction of the difficulty posed by recording an album from prison via GTL, you will see [This call is being recorded]whenever the GTL pre-recording cut in.
What’s your day-to-day life been like over the last month?
Just working out, reading, doing songs, and trying not to let all of this other stuff get to me. [Laughs].
What have you been reading lately?
Napoleon Hill and all of the shit they let me get. Outwitting the Devil and shit like that.
Have you been able to listen to much music outside of your own stuff?
Yeah, I hear some shit on the radio at nighttime. L.A. Leakers and shit like that. [This call is being recorded].
Have you heard L.A. rappers imitating your style? How do you feel about that?
[Laughs]Have I heard? I hear it every day on the radio. People tell me everyday. The police tell me. Everyone tells me, “Every time I hear somebody, it sounds like you.” I guess I appreciate the people who acknowledge that it came from me and they blew up off this shit. But then you got the people that think they’re me and don’t want to acknowledge nothing. There’s a lot of those people. [Laughs] It’s kind of cool. I feel like Gucci Mane when he came out and everybody was stealing his shit. He was like big bro. I’m like him, but way younger. I just got a crazy influence.
I remember when no one was playing my shit, or when I just started in 2015. Motherfuckers were like, “This shit doesn’t make any sense. You’re just making up shit.” Then all of the sudden shit changed. When I was fucking with Mustard they probably thought, “Oh, he fuck with Mustard. He’s going to just drop one mixtape.” No. Actually, I really know how to rap.
“I heard about [people protesting]. That was actually cool. Finally, people are starting to get what’s going on.”
How has COVID-19 impacted your life?
I haven’t been to court in almost four months. I was in the middle of trial. They stopped my trial. I was picking jury. They canceled all of our visits. They don’t really give a shit. It’s whatever, I guess. It makes jail a little worse than jail. [Laughs]I wasn’t getting visitors for about 13 months before that shit happened. Where I was at before here, no visitors or the phone.
Have you been able to communicate with Ralfy [the Plug] or Ketchy [the Great]? They’re doing okay, all things considered?
Yeah, I talked to them the other day. They should be getting out soon, probably like next year or the end of this year. They’re cool.
Have you been able to follow all of the protests taking place in the U.S. after George Floyd’s murder?
Yeah. I actually watched it on the news the other day for like three hours. This shit is crazy. People are getting tired of that shit. I guess they chose the wrong time to kill somebody. Everybody is already in the house. This is really a reason, like, “Fuck that shit.”
What does it mean to see so many people asking for criminal justice reform and to defund the police?
It means a lot now, but this stuff has been going on for years [This call is being recorded]. I heard [the LAPD] cut like 100 million, but their budget was 4 billion or something like that. This shit is crazy. [Laughs]. I pay attention to everything. They never should’ve put me in here. I have nothing to do but read books and pay attention to shit.
The central message of “Social Media Can’t Help You” is that digital cries for your freedom from millions of fans won’t change your situation. Yesterday, though, people marched and protested in front of DA Jackie Lacey’s office in Downtown LA.
Jackie Lacey has been hanging motherfuckers for years. She’s the reason I’m going back to trial. She didn’t prosecute like over 600 police related deaths or some shit.
I heard about [people protesting]. That was actually cool. Finally, people are starting to get what’s going on. There are other prosecutors and all that, but she’s responsible for everything that happened to us, my brother, everybody. They went to prison for vandalism with gang enhancements on petty crimes like witness intimidation or persuading the witness, shit that only carries a maximum of 16 months. With a gang enhancement, it carries life. [Lacey] is the person who pushes for stuff like that. She’s the person who has literally about 50 people I know who are not gang members that are in prison with gang enhancements because they said, “You’re associated with this person,” or, “You did a crime with somebody and they gave you a gang enhancement [This call is being recorded] because you want to go home.” Now motherfuckers got gang enhancements for nothing. Tagging crews, jerkin crews, whatever. Hopefully, justice ends up coming. She needs to resign.
Some people I was protesting with downtown had “Free Drakeo” signs. As we marched through the crowd, a few people stopped to say “Free the Ruler.” You have a lot of support.
That’s what keeps me going through the days. I probably have about 200 letters on my walls. People are always telling me, “I can’t wait for you to get out. I listen to your music every day.” One person was like, “Your music stopped me from committing suicide.” I was like, “Damn, I don’t know how I did that. This is crazy.” But that’s why I always be humble. I know I’m not in my raps, but I never forget how it was when I first started rapping or when nobody listened to me. I keep that in mind. I just hate fake shit. I respect the people that don’t have nothing and are content with it. But when you want to play this role and do all this other stuff, that’s when I step in. [Laughs]
Back in 2018, when you talked to Passion of the Weiss, you said that you weren’t going to record an album over the phone. What changed?
I said that shit, didn’t I? [Laughs]The shit changed when COVID-19 came and I didn’t know when the fuck I was going back to court. I said fuck it. Joog is my brother and he made me do that shit. He said that this is what people needed.
Have you listened to other rap albums recorded over the phone from prison?
I listened to the homies’ shit, but I never really heard nobody else’s shit like that. I don’t really follow that shit like that. I know Mac Dre did one and Yatta is always doing it.
Have you ever read about the circumstances surrounding Mac Dre’s incarceration?
No. I knew he was in jail for like seven years or something.
Mac Dre was sentenced for conspiracy to commit bank robbery.
[Laughs]Either you did it or you didn’t do it. Conspired? Somebody said that you thought about it and you were going to drive there. Was he in the front?
The police said they bought ski masks.
[Laughs]Did they find drugs or something?
The reason I bring it up is because they used his lyrics against him.
I did not know that. Man. RIP Mac Dre. That’s how I be feeling. I be feeling like him sometimes. How his influence is out there, that’s kind of how I did this shit. How he changed the rap scene out there, that’s how I did it in L.A.
Do you have any idea how many phone calls you made to finish Thank You For Using GTL?
[Laughs]No. How many you think, Joog?
Joog: It was a couple calls per song. On average, it was like two to three calls a song.
Does that message, “This call is being recorded,” mess things up?
It happens every five minutes, so I time it.
What does it cost per minute/call?
[This call is being recorded]Like $15 or $20 or some shit per hour. [Laughs]This is what I’m going to tell motherfuckers: I wouldn’t advise you to try to make a jail mixtape if you don’t have any money. You have to pay for the phone time. My tape has 18 songs. Imagine if it keeps fucking up and doing all this other shit, you might have to use the phone for a whole fucking week doing this shit. It might be $200 a day. Then you might want a good engineer like Mixed by Navin or something. You got to pay for these extra programs and stuff to clear this shit up and take out breathing and shit out of the background. You’re going to get hit with the great engineer price. It’s more than what people think. But do what you love. If you want to do music from jail, just make sure you have money to back it up. It’s not as easy as motherfuckers be thinking. On top of all of that, this is a jail phone. It’s different than being on a cell phone and shit like that.
How do you feel about companies like GTL and JPay profiting off of prisoners?
Joog: They some bitch ass niggas.
Drakeo: Yeah, that, too. That’s why I did the tape. I was like, “I’m going to get money off of them.” If they’re going to get money off of me and letting me know my call is recorded, I might as well record a song. [Laughs]It’s a fucked up thing. I get it, but we shouldn’t have to pay to talk to people that we love. Somebody has to make money off of it, I guess.
This isn’t the first time that you recorded over the phone. You recorded “Murder Was the Case” for Free the Stinc Team back in 2018.
I didn’t do nothing to that song. When I recorded that, it was loud as fuck. I was in the dorm. It was crazy. I was like, “Fuck it, I’ll do it just to see if people listen to it.” It was cool, but I didn’t have Navin mix it or anything like that. This tape, I actually took time with because I wanted people to know [This call is being recorded] what it sound like. I know they judge people off of shit like, “Oh, he made a tape from jail? He’s going to fall off. This is what he’s going to sound like when he get out.” No matter what people say, that’s what they think. I had to let people know. And my brother kept pressing me like, “They need to hear the 2020 you. They’re still stealing your old shit.” I was like, “Yeah, you right.” I had to switch it up, but keep it the same.
What did you learn from recording “Murder Was the Case” that you applied to this album?
The way I was doing it was too much. Navin had me rapping without the beat, trying to guess where shit is supposed to be placed on the beat, and then the beat plays and he has to drag it in there. Nah. So Joog would have the shit playing and I could hear it, and then I could just rap the shit. At first, I was trying to do it regular: rap, do the hook, and then do the verse. This time, most of the time, I one-taked the whole shit. As Joog put it, “There goes the whole song. It all plays right. We can slow some parts down and speed some parts up.” That’s it. Instead of trying to do all that and place the hook and do it all over. It was way easier this time.
Joog, how long did it take you to figure out the best way to record Drakeo’s voice? What did you ultimately come up with?
Joog: I had an epiphany. I woke up with it. I woke up and I was like, “This is going to be crazy. I’m going to try this new shit.” I went to Guitar Center. There’s a special cable that I had to buy. I had my mom send my interface [out to Atlanta]. I had her send me the interface and all of the shit to record. Then I bought this special cable and I’m like, “Let’s try this shit.” The first song was the first try. I’d never did that before. “Black Holocaust” I did it with the song on the mic. I tried to have him hear the beat through the headphones. It was a weird little setup that I tried to do. This time, boom. I plugged the phone straight into the computer. That shit came out perfect because he was able to hear the song through the speaker without it interrupting the vocals.
Do you have any advice for producers who must record rappers from prison?
Joog: You have to have tip-top equipment and get you a good ass engineer. Otherwise, you won’t be able to understand what they’re saying.
Drakeo: You need people to understand, so it’s more than recording a song. You can have a producer who can record a song. Most producers should know how to record, but you need an engineer who really knows what he’s doing so you can hear every single word. That was the whole point of this. People were like, “It sounds cool like this.” I was like, “Nah, Navin is going to have to mix that shit.” I want people to be listening to the tape and spitting soda out of their mouth like, “Damn, this nigga’s crazy.” Milk coming out they nose. Funny shit. [Laughs]
Was recording the record a bit of an escape for you?
Yeah, that’s exactly what it was. I felt like I was in the studio again. I had to pick the right beats. It has to count for something.
Joog, how long did you spend trying to get the beats together and recording?
Joog: Some of the beats were slated for the Trilogy. [This call is being recorded]We was going to drop The Trilogy tape.
Drakeo: It was supposed to be We Know the Truth, then it was going to be The Truth Hurts, and then it was going to be Ain’t That the Truth. It was going to be a trilogy, but I said, “Fuck it, I’ll just do this.”
Joog: I just got an exclusive folder that nobody gets to hear that’s full of beats for Drakeo. I started picking from there. We recorded like 13 songs in 36 hours. Fixing everything up to make it sound on point took a little bit of time, but the actual recording process took like a day and a half. Some of the beats I made, and some of the beats [were made by] LD Tha Monster and Menace, Ace the Face and Fizzle. They was all on there, too. Some of the beats I collabed with them. LD and Menace chipped in on “GTA” and “Tell You the Truth.” LD got some bangers on there. The rest of the time was the mixing process in all that shit. We pretty much put it together in less than a month.
Drakeo: It was Navin’s bitch ass that took forever to mix it. He did a good job.
“Imagine if I would’ve made this tape before I got my not-guilty verdict. They would’ve been like, ‘Yeah, that n***a did that shit.’”
Were you writing while on the phone, or did you listen to the beats, take some time to write to them, and then record?
Some of the beats he sent me. Most of the time, I’d call Joog and there’d be a beat playing. I’m like, “Alright, that’s hard. I think I got something.” Or I’d write something and then the next day in the morning I’d be rapping it for Joog and he’d be like, “I got a beat for that.” I don’t know how the shit was going so perfectly, but it did.
On “I Want It All,” you say one line and then say, “But don’t hold me to that statement.” Were you worried that your lyrics might somehow be used against you again?
Always. I always am. [Laughs] I made the tape to let people know what’s going on. I have to do this because I haven’t been able [This call is being recorded]to record in so long. Imagine if I would’ve made this tape before I got my not-guilty verdict. They would’ve been like, “Yeah, that nigga did that shit.” Then I go to trial and they find out I didn’t have nothing to do with this shit. It’s like, damn, do you really just listen to people’s music and assume certain shit? I was like, I’ll just say certain things so that people know what’s going on around everything.
Joog: There were also a few outtakes. We didn’t want people to take certain things literally or the wrong way. There were a few executive decisions. I was like, “Nah, this ain’t the one.” And I took it out.
Many of the lyrics on the album talk about activities and a lifestyle that you’re unable to enjoy right now. What did writing those lyrics do for you? Why write about that rather than being inside?
Nobody wants to hear nobody rap about being in jail all day. I don’t want to hear that shit. So why would I want to sit here rapping about all of this other stuff when I can rap about things that I’ve been around or done and the life that I know I would be living if I were on the streets. I want people to be able to relate to that, on top of the fact that there are a couple of songs about being in jail and stuff people go through in jail. But most of the regular songs are about stuff people want to listen to. The skits and all of that shit that we were putting at the end, I wanted it to be as up to date as possible. People will be like, “Damn, he didn’t miss nothing.” Yeah, I’m still here.
How have you been able to follow the support you’ve been getting on social media?
People tell me shit. It’s always something. Somebody always knows something. In jail, you hear about a lot of stuff. You know shit in here before it even hits the streets. It’s kind of easy to keep up with shit like that.
Aside from social media support, what else should your fans be doing to help you right now?
They can show up to my court dates. I know people don’t really fuck with the court shit, but the only reason I tell people to come to my court dates is because I had a police officer who knows my music. He plays my music and shit. He was like, “Yeah, I read The Fader article. I don’t know. [This call is being recorded] They over exaggerate stuff.” I’m like, “No, bro. Everything that’s in there is the truth. This is what’s going on.” Some people just don’t believe it. They’re like, “There’s no way! It has to be more than that.” Yes. They’re saying I’m the leader of a rap group that they’re calling a gang because my name is Drakeo the Ruler. I’m going to trial for the same thing. I literally beat almost every single charge, and the two charges don’t even make sense. How can you shoot from a motor vehicle if you weren’t the shooter and all of the charges are attached to the murder and attempted murder are not guilty? How can you benefit from a murder that you were acquitted of? It doesn’t make no sense.
But people don’t know. I’m just like, “Come to court so you can see with your own eyes and maybe things will be different.” Maybe the judge won’t try to railroad me. Maybe the judge will have some common sense. And don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot of people who come. I appreciate all of the people that do come to my court dates. But it just seems like the days that people don’t come and show support, my judge gets to acting crazy. That’s why I tell people, “Just come.” I appreciate all of the social media stuff and spreading my case, but if you really want to help, just come to my court dates. I don’t need no money or none of that shit. Just come.
If dates continue to get pushed back, do you think you’ll record another record?
[Laughs]I’m already doing it. I already got a second one I’ve been doing. There’s a part two we’re already recording. I have to do something with my time. Nobody else is out there recording nothing or doing nothing. How the fuck can I find time to do this shit in jail? Motherfuckers have no excuse. I don’t care about COVID-19 or none of that shit. That’s not stopping people from making music.
How are you feeling about tomorrow?
I’m still regular. Damn. I’m supposed to start my trial June 5 or June 15. One of those. [This call is being recorded]Supposed to. They’ve been saying this shit for three months. I don’t believe it.
Apart from all that’s going on with your trial, what are some things you think the LAPD needs to fix immediately?
[Laughs]Pulling over blacks and browns for having nice cars. Putting gang enhancements on people they know don’t gang bang just to get convictions. There’s so many things. Stop shooting unarmed blacks and browns and Asians. Stop doing stuff like that. Don’t abuse their badge. They tend to do that a lot.
When I was in court, they tried to say my rap group is a gang because we have a common hand sign or signal, a pattern of criminal activity, and three or more people. Damn, that sounds like it could be anybody. It was kind of weird that when it’s the Sheriff’s or the LAPD, and you get to talking about them, it’s like, “No, they could never be a gang.” But they have all of the same criteria: common hand sign or signal, three or more people, pattern of criminal activity. When we were at trial, my brother’s lawyer put that on the screen, like, “Is this a gang?” Immediately, “No! He can’t do that.” They have gang tattoos and do all of this. What’s the difference?
With all you’ve been through, and all of the knowledge you’ve gained in the process, are you considering getting involved with criminal justice reform organizations in the future?
Absolutely. That’s why I keep telling people, “If they’re doing this all to me, imagine what they do to regular people.” I’m the rapper, the person with the platform. Are they trying to send a message out? That’s what it seems like. It’s kind of weird to me. There’s a lot of things that’s crazy to me[This call is being recorded]like my trial. It was really extremely weird that my judge used to work for my ex-DA’s father, on top of the fact that my detective killed someone before. Apparently, no one knows about this. It’s really weird. It was in the LA Times and they never bring it up in court. They don’t have any records of it. After my trial, my ex-DA, who’s not on the case no more, is a judge now. That’s really weird, but I don’t know nothing. I’m just a dumb rapper who does lean every day and talks about violence. Seems pretty odd to me, though.
Jeff Weiss has been your most vocal supporter and the main journalist chronicling your case. What does it mean to have someone like that in your corner?
It means alot to me. I understand people’s frustrations about what’s going on and what happened with the George Floyd shit. Some people always be like, “Fuck white people.” But if you want to keep it all the way 100, the only people that have been helping me are white people. I be kind of taking offense to that shit sometimes because Jeff [This call is being recorded]... He’s been really, really vocal about my situation. And I appreciate everyone else that’s been helping Jeff.
In talking to other journalists, is there anything you feel like they haven’t asked you about that you would like to discuss?
That’s a good question. They never really ask about my kid because I never really talk about him. But I do have a son. There’s certain shit. I do miss my son. Jeff asks a lot of stuff. I don’t know. I had a hard life. Now that I’ve found a way to not do illegal stuff, it’s weird that they’re using this against me. I never talk about it, but I’ve been shot before. That’s why I don’t understand. What is the element of benefit? Street cred? I’ve never once rapped in a song about me being shot before. All of this shit is kind of crazy. I’ve been homeless. I’ve stayed in motels, shelters, all of that shit. I don’t ever rap about none of that shit or talk about none of that shit. It just be kind of weird when I go to court and they stick their nose up like, “You don’t deserve all of the fame and the money and all that shit that you have.” It’s like, “You really don’t know what I had to go through to get this shit.” I do talk a lot of shit, but I had a hard life. Harder than most people. I’m like you, but I had to find a way. I was just good at rapping. Don’t hate me for being good at something. I was good at a lot of other things, too, but I stopped to do the rapping. I’m not a stuck up motherfucker. I’m regular. I guess I wouldn’t be considered regular no more, but I’m regular.
“I appreciate all of the social media stuff and spreading my case, but if you really want to help, just come to my court dates. I don’t need no money or none of that shit. Just come.”
How has it been communicating with your son? How is he doing?
I just talked to him earlier at my momma’s house. He’s cool. He’s getting big. I bought him a diamond chain for his birthday with his name and all that other stuff. He’s straight, though. I just found out he likes ketchup a lot, which is really weird. I do not like ketchup. That shit nasty as fuck. It stinks.[This call is being recorded]. There is a lot of shit I do not like. I was talking to Jeff about this the other day. The day my son was born, they took me to jail. When they went and raised my brother and them, when we were on tour with Shoreline [Mafia], they took him to jail the same day his son was born. Neither one of us got to be there. I don’t know if they timed that shit. They would be some really evil and conniving motherfuckers for that, but maybe it was a coincidence. Kinda weird.
Why did you choose not to rap about all of the hardships you faced growing up?
I don’t know. I guess nobody wants to hear someone’s sob story. That’s how I feel. Sometimes people do hit me with, “You think you’re better than us,” and, “All you do is talk shit.” You don’t even know. I always tell people that I don’t talk down on people. I talk down on the people that fake like they have it and they don’t. If you’re a college student, be that. Do school. I talk about people that try to be stuff that they’re not. Be yourself, because everyone else is taken. I only talk about people who plagiarize other people’s images.
Is there anything else you’d like to say with regard to the album or your life?
Just listen to this because this is what they asked for. [Laughs]. It’s everyone’s reality in this album. I tried to view it from everybody’s perspective, from the outside looking in and from me talking. This whole album is basically about things they might be thinking, stuff they might’ve heard that’s going on with me, or just me living on the street[This call is being recorded]…in jail and somebody else on the streets. Some of the things that I put in my raps are things that people commented on my pictures, things like that. Only a real fan would know.