What No One Tells You About Recording Music In Prison


What No One Tells You About Recording Music In Prison

When you’ve heard that your favorite musician has been arrested, it can be easy to think you won’t hear new music from them anytime soon.

However, that’s not always the case. One minute you hear your favorite musician is incarcerated and the next minute they drop an album from jail. So, can musicians record songs from prison?

In general, prisons do not allow inmates to record audio or video within the facility. However, some prisons have a music room or recording studio where incarcerated musicians can record music during recreational hours. This is reserved for inmates in high standing and controlled by the prison.

In this article, we will answer some of your questions about how recording in prison works and what artists have recorded albums from prison.

How Do Musicians Record In Prison?

Access To Musical Instruments

Generally, many inmates have access to musical instruments, but it comes at a price.

Prisoners can buy access to music rooms that have state-provided instruments to record their songs. This amenity is considered a privilege and is reserved for model prisoners.

High-risk inmates usually cannot access any instruments during their sentence.  

San Quentin State Prison has had multiple inmate bands that have used music equipment provided through the Arts & Corrections program, according to Eric “Phil” Phillips, an inmate at San Quentin.

“I feel bad for other institutions because music is what keeps a lot of us going.”

Eric “Phil” Phillips, an inmate at San Quentin.

Some of the inmate bands make their own music while others are apart of Catholic or Protestant church bands within the prison.

Phillips wrote in a message board that the William James Association took over their Arts & Corrections program after the prison had to cut its funding.

Other jails have more limited access to music equipment, especially when they need to cut funding to their programs.

Scheduling A Session

Inmates are required to schedule a session in the recording studio ahead of time, so the prison can approve it.

Most jails only allow the room to be used by a single person and won’t allow more than 2 people in the room at a time due to safety concerns.

What Albums Have Been Recorded in Prison?

There are musicians that record live concerts in prisons and musicians who release pre-recorded albums while they are locked up.

However, there are a select few who channel their creativity and utilize what resources they have to actually write, record, and release albums from prison.

It’s not an easy task, but these artists put in the work and created projects in prison.

Lifer’s Group – Living Proof

In 1991, Maxwell Melvins formed the short-lived hip-hop troupe called the Lifer’s Group.

What did they have in common? They were all inmates at the East Jersey State Prison.

The Lifer’s Group wrote, recorded, and performed in music videos all while serving out their sentences.

After a few singles and an EP, the group released a full-length album called Living Proof in 1993 with producer David Funken Klein of Hollywood Basic Inc.

Their project was even nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Long Form Music Video for their short documentary “Lifers Group World Tour: Rahway Prison, That’s It.”

They couldn’t attend the event – for obvious reasons – but they didn’t end up winning.

Still, creating that much content while behind bars is still a pretty incredible accomplishment.

Mac Dre – Back N Da Hood

Mac Dre recorded the entire Back N Da Hood EP over a prison phone after he was arrested for conspiracy to commit bank robbery in Fresno.

With producer Khayree on the other end, Mac Dre rapped about his reality behind the bars of Fresno County Jail as well as his early childhood life.

“This can’t be real, man, it all seems fake
3 am and it’s time to E-A-T
Cold cream of wheat and lunch in a B-A-G
This shit is the pits, man, how worse will it get, man
I need to be N Da Hood, straight getting a grit, man…”

‘Back N Da Hood’ – Mac Dre

Strictly Business Records released the EP in 1992 and Mac Dre was released from prison five years later in 1997.

However, he was only free for seven years before an unidentified gunman shot and killed him on October 31, 2004.

Max B – Toothy Wavy, and ‘Silver Surfer’

Charly Wingate – better known as Max B (short for Max Biggaveli) – is an American rapper best known for his solo Public Domain and Million Dollar Baby series of mixtapes.

In mid-2009, he was sentenced to 75 years in prison on conspiracy to commit armed robbery, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and felony murder.

Rappers generally suggest that other rappers phone in their verses as an insult, however, Max B made a career of it.

In 2012, Max B also phoned in a few verses to create the collaborative mixtape Toothy Wavy with Isaiah Toothtaker.

He even recorded a phone conversation with Kanye West for The Life of Pablo track, “Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission.”

“Yeezy, Yeezy, what’s good?
It’s your boy Max B, what’s going on?
Just checking in on you
Appreciate the love and support
The wave is here”

Max B – Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission

Features like this have kept Max B relevant, which allows him to keep up his following while incarcerated.

However, it looks like Max B might be recording his own songs in a real studio pretty soon.

In July 2019, Max B’s sentence was reduced from 20 years to 12 years. He is scheduled for release sometime in 2021.

Live Prison Performances Released as Albums

While many musicians’ record and release songs from prison, others just perform there.

Many artists including guitarist Carlos Santana, Metallica, B.B. King and the Grateful Dead have all performed concerts for inmates.

However, there are some who have released these concerts as an album.

Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison, and At San Quentin

While many albums are recorded or released from prison, some musicians simply choose to use a prison facility, you know, kind of like an aesthetic.

Johnny Cash’s legendary albums, At Folsom Prison, and At San Quentin are great examples of this.

“Folsom Prison Blues” is among one of Cash’s most famous songs, right after “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire.”

Although, contrary to popular belief, Cash was never an inmate at Folsom State Prison.

Cash became interested in the state prison after watching Crane Wilbur’s 1951 film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.

This film inspired Cash to write a song that reflected his perception of prison life.

Thus, “Folsom Prison Blues” was born and released as his second single on Sun Records.

It’s not surprising that the song became popular with inmates, who would write Cash and ask for him to preform at their prison.

Cash – whose popularity had dwindled due to his increased drug use – was very receptive to the idea of performing for his inmate fan clubs.

Cash’s first prison performance was at Huntsville State Prison in 1957 and he continued to perform at several other prisons in the years leading up to the Folsom performance in 1968.

In 1967, Cash sought the help he needed for his drug addiction and by the end of the year, he was able to turn his career around. He saw this as an opportunity to finally record a live album at a prison, and what better than the one that started it all: Folsom State Prison.

Cash held two performances on January 13 at the prison, one at 9:40 AM and one at 12:40 PM, just in case the first performance was insufficient for the album.

He opened both shows with “Folsom Prison Blues,” which was followed by many other songs about prison life.

Columbia Records released At Folsom Prison four months later in May 1968.

Sex Pistols – Live at Chelmsford Top Security Prison

The English punk rock band Sex Pistols also performed in a prison and released the audio as a live album.

The album, titled Live at Chelmsford Top Security Prison, was recorded on September 17, 1976, but wasn’t released until 1990.

The record was re-released in 1992 because the band’s early sound engineer, Dave Goodman, had added overdubs and insertions to the original release, such as Glen Matlock’s studio-recorded guitar parts, noises from the crowd, and sirens.

The later release eliminates these insertions.

Artists That Released Pre-Recorded Albums

You may have heard of a favorite artist incarceration on the news and then be listening to their newly released single a week later. How is that possible?

A musician’s team can strategically release singles, music videos, and even albums while the artist is in prison to make it feel like they never missed a step.

Lil Wayne – I Am Not a Human Being

Dwayne Carter Jr. – or more infamously known as Grammy-winning rapper Lil Wayne – is a great example of a musician releasing previously recorded content while in prison.

In October 2009 Lil Wayne pleaded guilty to having a loaded gun on his tour bus after a Manhattan concert in 2007. He was sentenced to one year at Rikers Island jail in New York.

In his final weeks of freedom before beginning his sentence, the rapper created a whole slew of content, including song recordings and music videos.

This big push of material provided the necessary amount of songs and videos to make it seem like Weezy hadn’t missed a beat while at Rikers.

Lil Wayne’s management team had a big part to play during this time. They
sought out features for the content Weezy had made from his protégé Drake to Eminem and strategically timed the releases to keep him relevant.

The goal was to make it feel like the rapper had never left.

Bryan “Birdman” Williams, the Cash Money Records co-founder, had been promoting Weezy’s career from the beginning.

He and his team became regulars during Riker’s Island visiting hours.
They played and recorded music over the jail phone and saw to it that Lil Wayne received all his fan mail.

But, more importantly, they also made sure his responses to the fans made it back to them.

His team managed to keep him on fan’s minds while he worked within the prison writing new lyrics and creating new songs for his iconic album: Tha Carter IV.

Shyne – Godfather Buried Alive

Shyne began his 10-year sentence in 2001, just a year after his debut album was released.

Bad Boy Entertainment soon released him from his contract, but that
didn’t mean other labels didn’t want him.

Labels would visit Shyne is prison to discuss contracts, which started a huge
bidding war over his music.

Def Jam Records ended up on top, signing Shyne with a $3 million contract while he was incarcerated.

Shyne recorded the majority of tracks on Godfather Buried Alive prior to his incarceration, but certain lines were still recorded over a prison phone.

The only song fully recorded from prison was For The Record, a diss track Shyne made in response to 50 Cent dissing him on Hot 97 during a freestyle.

The album features a few guest appearances from Nate Dogg, Foxy Brown and Ashanti to flesh it out further.

Kanye West, Swizz Beats, Mike Dean and Just Blaze also featured in the production of the album.

The album debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200 with 158,000 copies sold in its first week. This made Shyne the second rapper (after 2Pac) to have an album debut in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 while incarcerated.

Related Questions

Can people listen to music in prison?

The way an inmate is able to listen to music is dependent on the state and the prison itself. Generally, inmates can purchase portable CD Players or MP3 players with headphones through distributors that ship items designed to accommodate inmates. Most facilities also provide computers in the library to listen to music with headphones.


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Jordan Henrie

Jordan Henrie is the Owner and Brand Manager of Ennui Magazine. Jordan grew up in the suburban area outside Detroit, MI. He now lives in Seattle, WA with his wife, and regularly attends local concerts to support independent music and art.

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