From Jailhouse to Jazzhouse 

After serving seven years of a fourteen-year drug sentence, John Forté comes to Yoshi's.

Ex-Fugees producer John Forté keeps a low profile these days. Only a couple of people in the world have his home phone number. Forté has a new day job, working with teenage children of incarcerated parents through a program called In Arms Reach — he's showing the kids how to use songwriting as a form of catharsis. When he's not teaching, Forté tends to barricade himself in the studio, or at home in Tribeca, with his battered violin and seven guitars. Since his release from prison last December, after serving seven years of a fourteen-year drug sentence, Forté has started treating home as his sanctuary. Nine months since his release, the former-prep-school-student-turned-felon has a new album and a memoir in the works. The 34-year-old artist is gradually acclimating to Twitter and Google — and a new life. A decade ago he was signed to Columbia, hangin' with Lauryn Hill, and enjoying the life of an A-list rapper-producer. Now he's adopted a very ascetic lifestyle: No television, few phone calls, a lot of time spent thinking and writing. His music will never be the same.

Forté grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a rough, working-class neighborhood wedged between East Flatbush and Bedford-Stuyvesant. He was a straight-A student at public schools with metal detectors. He took up violin at age eight to be in the school orchestra, and started listening to classical music ("the obvious guys — Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin," he said) along with all the Eighties-era hip-hop that was popping in New York. In junior high school, a guidance counselor approached Forté and suggested he consider boarding school at New Hampshire's Phillips Exeter Academy. Forté balked, not knowing the difference between "boarding" school and "reform" school. "I grew livid," he recalled. "I said, 'I'm a good kid — I don't deserve boarding school!' She let me grow red in the face, then she said, 'I think you misunderstood.' She showed me brochures, and my eyes lit up."

So Forté began living the double life of a smart scholarship kid from the 'hood. At Exeter he continued studying violin while producing hip-hop tracks on equipment passed down from his wealthier schoolmates. Forté started out on a Casio P1 and cassette deck, but later advanced to four-track and eight-track machines. His friends gave him their old equipment whenever they advanced to the newest, hottest piece of modern gadgetry. Forté would take it back home to Brooklyn on summer breaks. At home, few people had the financial wherewithal to buy fancy DJ technology, but many had aspirations in hip-hop. The stiff competition made Brooklyn a backpacker hotbed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Gang Starr all emerged around that time, and Forté remembers all the aggressive freestyles that took place regularly in his neighborhood park. He met Gang Starr through a mutual friend and got to hang out with DJ Premier in the studio, watching as the famed producer cut records and twiddled knobs. When Forté tells the story today, he still sounds enraptured: "Here I was in the studio looking over the shoulders of one of hip-hop's preeminent producers, looking at the way he triggers sounds." He would scour the local flea markets for new breaks, and return to Exeter in the fall with new material, straight from the source.

Within a few years of graduating from prep school, Forté wormed his way into the upper echelons of East Coast hip-hop. He met the Fugees through his friend Jeff Borrows, who was their product manager in the early 1990s. One day Borrows showed Forté a VHS tape of the group's first video, for the single "Boof Baf" on their 1994 LP, Blunted on Reality. "This is the future of music," Borrows announced, as Wyclef, Lauryn, and Pras danced through a landscape of demolished and abandoned buildings. That night Forté caught his first Fugees show at the Supper Club and talked to Lauryn Hill afterward. Shortly thereafter he was at their studio, the Booga Basement, sharing some of his own tracks with the group. He wound up cowriting and producing two songs on their multiplatinum 1996 album, The Score.

Forté went on to make two rap albums of his own, the 1998 joint Poly Sci (a mix of peppy beats and cerebral lyrics that flopped on the market but garnered praise from music critics) and 2002 follow-up I, John, which he made in the short period between his arrest and trial. Both records showed Forté to be a promising addition to the East Coast hip-hop scene. The combination of classical training, street sensibility, and an improbable double life made him a thoroughly interesting rapper. Not to mention that Forté brought live instrumentation and vintage jazz samples into his tracks, which gave them musical depth. He was a tweedy intellectual with a gritty upbringing — a guy who listened to Rachmaninoff but could hang with thugs. He navigated both worlds with ease.

Forté's hip-hop career came to an abrupt halt in 2000, when he was arrested at the Newark International Airport for carrying a briefcase with 31 pounds of liquid cocaine (worth about $1.4 million). Poly Sci had sold only 79,000 copies, Columbia had dropped him, a dissolute celebrity lifestyle had drained his cash and he couldn't make the rent on his two-bedroom apartment. Forté was easy prey for Chris Thompson, the Jamaican drug dealer he met while DJing at a Manhattan nightclub. Thompson hired Forté as a middle-man between the cartel operators and "couriers" who transported suitcases of cocaine throughout the United States. (In a 2002 jailhouse interview, Forté told Rolling Stone journalist Peter Wilkinson that he thought the suitcases were full of cash, not narcotics.)

After his arrest, Forté was incarcerated at a Texas prison and then transferred to FCI Loretto, a low-security federal facility in central Pennsylvania. He fell into a deep, abysmal depression. "I didn't play, didn't write, didn't think about music for the first two years," the rapper said. Finally, he got a guitar from the recreation department at Loretto and taught himself a few chords. He would stay up until 3 a.m. practicing in his cell. It was at Loretto that Forté first saw the video for Kanye West's "Through the Wire" and heard another hip-hop producer do something he'd aspired to do in the 1990s — twist, speed up, and contort a hip-hop sample until it became nearly unrecognizable, a form of melodic instrumentation in its own right.

Seven years passed before Forté was finally able to apply these new insights to his own music. President Bush commuted his sentence in November 2008, and he got out four weeks later. He wasted no time getting back into music, returning to the now-dilapidated violin that sat at home waiting for him, "like a good girl," and amassing his current collection of guitars. His new StyleFREE EP — parts of which he'll perform next week at San Francisco Yoshi's — mixes rap with singer-songwriter material. Forté's rap style has remained consistent over the years: A word-heavy, baroque flow that favors narrative over braggadocio. His singing voice is a raspy, grainy tenor. The difference is that now, Forté has a lot more to rap about — namely, his drug rap. Forté says that after spending so much time away from the free world, he's become a more well-rounded artist. "There is something about tortured social pariahs, irrespective of genre ... people who suffer yet find ways to co-exist via their music," he explained. Forté never aspired to suffer, but says he did want to tap into that creative process. "I guess the universe heard," he said, "because I suffered."


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