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Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2010

John Forté’s Second Chance

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By 2000, John Forté was in a rut. Just a few years before, he’d been considered one of rap’s top talents, a triple-threat songwriter/producer/rapper who proved himself with his work on The Fugees’ groundbreaking 1996 album The Score. But Forté fell on tough times financially after his own 1998 solo record flopped and his label dropped him. For extra income he began working for a Manhattan drug dealer. In July 2000 the Drug Enforcement Administration arrested Forté at Newark International Airport, where he’d dropped off a briefcase full of liquid cocaine.

Forté insisted he believed he was just transferring cash, but he was found guilty of cocaine possession with intent to distribute. Because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenders, Forté was shown no leniency. He was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison.

Forté’s famous friend Carly Simon lobbied hard on the rapper’s behalf, decrying his harsh sentence and pleading to her politically connected friends, but to no avail. His appeals process exhausted, Forté settled into prison life, making the most of it by teaching himself guitar, reading, practicing chess and following world events as he never had before. Then, in late 2008, a little more than seven years into his prison term, he received some unlikely good news. President George W. Bush had commuted his sentence. He was a free man.

“It was like learning I’d won the lottery,” Forté says, but even that analogy doesn’t do justice to the magnitude of his improbable break. Bush, of course, was not the type of president to show leniency to drug offenders—let alone famous rapper drug offenders—but more than that, Bush was extremely cautious about pardons and almost ideologically averse to commutations. In his eight years in office, Bush commuted the sentences of only 11 people. Why Forté was one of them remains unclear.

Forté is now writing a memoir, but it took him a while to open up about his prison experience. After he was freed in December 2008, he was surprisingly reserved, declining to do interviews.

“I didn’t want to become the freak at the dinner party, the person who everyone wants to hear tell their story for a week and half,” Forté says. Instead he went back to the studio and began working on songs.

“I probably did about 70 songs almost immediately, just to let people know where my head was at and what I was thinking about,” he says. “The music itself is more critical than ever. A lot of people came up to me and said they thought I’d just be talking about prison, but that’s not me. There’s nothing cool about the prison experience, and I don’t want to propagate that idea to young people who are already fed that misconception.”

Forté’s new songs, he says, are about self-responsibility.

“These are times when everyone should be held accountable,” he says. “I want people who hear them to not only be inspired to question themselves and authority, but also to question me. I’m not interested in finger pointing or playing the blame game, or saying that I’m a victim. I think it would discredit my personal history if I didn’t try to learn from it, and learn from my mistakes.”

The music itself is a drastic departure, too, more inspired by independent singer-songwriters than hip-hop.

“In prison, I voluntarily shut myself off from pop culture,” Forté says. “I didn’t watch TV, but I listened to NPR, so the music that I was hearing was the music that changed my life: José González, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Regina Spektor, Joanna Newsom, Damien Rice, TV on the Radio. I started listening to some good music, man! It didn’t sound big, and it wasn’t this wall-of-sound stuff. Perhaps my favorite was Cat Power. To hear that imperfection in her voice gave me such hope, because to me she represented what a credible artist has always been: somebody able to be vulnerable to the audience.”

It’s in that spirit that Forté is touring solo and acoustically.

“No backing tracks, no band, no DJ, just me and my acoustic guitar,” Forté says. “That’s going to be the blueprint for my next album, too: lyric-driven, acoustic, organic music. It’s going to sound like I recorded it in my living room. It should really allow listeners the truest glimpse of me yet.”

John Forté plays an 8 p.m. show at Shank Hall on Sunday, Feb. 14, with opener marQue.