Despite being acquitted of murder charges last July, Drakeo the Ruler is currently confined in L.A. County’s Men’s Central Jail because of a reported yearslong vendetta being pursued by the district attorney’s office. He also just released one of the year’s best albums, Thank You for Using GTL, recorded entirely over the phone from prison. GTL is a telecommunications company with an end-to-end system that allows prisoners to talk to people on the outside for a fee, and Drakeo used hours of calls to smuggle out verses teeming with nonchalant bravado.
Jailhouse albums are notoriously difficult to make and almost always eroded by the real-life stakes at play: Recording raps over the phone is a logistical nightmare, a process marred by low-grade sound quality and a disrupted sense of timing; oftentimes, prison projects collapse under the physical and emotional toll of the artist’s circumstance. But Thank You for Using GTL is the rare jail album where the conditions only heighten the storytelling at hand, and its creators emphasize the harrowing situation at nearly every turn. This was pulled off, in part, thanks to producer JoogSZN, who made beats for the album and recorded all of Drakeo’s verses. “In the face of coronavirus, locked down and everything, all these other rappers making excuses and shit,” Joog says, laughing. “Nah, fuck that.”
As if to illustrate the difficulties of recording over the phone, I can hear my voice echoing on the line as JoogSZN explains how Drakeo rapped an entire album this way, while also being caged and on trial for his life.
Pitchfork: How did Thank You for Using GTL come together?
JoogSZN: When Drakeo got acquitted of all his charges last year, we thought he was coming home. We already had tapes planned out. But when they started retrying him for the same thing he got acquitted for—which is illegal, but they tryna use a loophole—we were just sitting here like, “Man, this shit is weak.” People was asking him to do [one-off] verses from jail, so I was like, “Fuck it, we might as well put something together.” We started working in May and we recorded damn-near the whole tape in 36 hours.
What was Drakeo’s mindset like while you guys were recording?
He’s just annoyed that he has to go through this shit while bullshit-ass people like 6ix9ine get out. Keeping it all the way real: He know he didn’t do it; the D.A. know he didn’t do it; the detective know he didn’t do it; even the judge know he didn’t do it. So why is he being persecuted for being a rapper? What do they have to hold him on? We be dying on the phone all the time because everything’s funny. Everything that has been happening throughout this whole period is funny. Even in good spirits though, it’s time to give up the ghost and let this man free. This is a high-profile case. Everybody involved is looking for a pat on the back and an award for catching the so-called John Gotti character of L.A. But you’re not going to get points off convicting an innocent man.
How exactly did you record him over the phone from jail?
I figured out the coldest way to do it; I streamlined the process. It’s hard for you to hear the beat and record it through a phone—you’ve gotta have some kind of loop that won’t feed back into the mic or on my side. So I got the Beats Pill hooked up to my computer and directed the beat into the phone transmitter, and then the receiver audio hooked straight up to the computer. It created a loop where he was able to hear the beat in the headset and just rap into the mic piece of the GTL phone. But you have to remember that the loop also creates a lag, because the sound is getting to him late. So I had to figure out how to make him think he was rapping on beat and then massage the vocals so it lined up.
How did you make sure he was hitting the beat on time?
Drakeo’s memory and timing is fucking astounding, to be honest with you. He’s a real artist, a real rapper. He hears it and remembers his cadence. He’s on beat for the most part. The only thing I had to fix was small little nuances in the vocals, because there’s noise that’s in the phone already.
It seemed like it was the holy trinity: me, Drakeo, and [engineer] Navin [Upamaka]. Navin did the heavy lifting on the actual science; I handled the rhythmic situation. I sent the vocals over, lined up how they needed to sound, and then we went back and forth for two weeks, because Navin is in L.A. right now, and I’m in Atlanta. It made it a little difficult because I tend to be over his shoulder like, “Nah, do it like this or like that.” But Navin know what he doing, as you can see.
How much did you guys end up having to pay GTL to record this?
Man! GTL is like 25 cents a minute. It’s been hundreds. This tape was very expensive. It was like two calls per song, then more calls afterwards getting everything lined up. Then we was on the phone politicking and all that. It was a lot.
There’s something fucked up about the prison system essentially profiting off your art.
Yeah, they did, but we tryna reverse that: Let me get that back, man. Let me recoup my investment. But yeah, that’s just glorified slavery. That’s all they tryna do. 13th amendment. They make it OK to enslave our brothers. They slap BS charges and felonies on you, now you’re part of the system.
Do you still plan on releasing more music together?
Oh yeah. We already recorded more songs. And they’re fire. I guarantee it. I got new beats I’ve been making since the tape. We was just like, “Man, we just gon’ keep going.” So we started making part two. We just giving the people some time to digest this one. And then they just moved Drakeo to another [housing] module at the jail, so we’ve got to get over that hurdle too. They trying to stop us. They don’t like what we doing.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork