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Drakeo the Ruler
Drakeo the RulerPhotography Deawnne Buckmire

An interview with LA rapper Drakeo the Ruler from behind bars

Speaking to one of the most innovative voices in modern hip hop, about how his linguistic play has gripped social media while he serves time

One of the most promising and singular rappers in the world right now is Drakeo the Ruler, an as-yet unsigned musician currently incarcerated in Men’s Central Jail, Los Angeles.

The beats he chooses to rap over tend to be far denser and more claustrophobic than most people making music in LA, or anywhere in rap, really – not for nothing, he named an early release “Nervous Music”. But it’s his voice that catches the listener off guard. Carrying it barely above a whisper, he intones lines of deft complexity. One second he references classical mythology (his name comes from the ancient Greek king that gave the world the word Draconian) and superheroes; next, he’s dropping designer names, almost contemptuously. He scatters ersatz slang like “flu flamming”, “uchies”, “Pippi Longstockings”, and “mud walking”. This is rap, dazzlingly executed, but through a kind of haze: it’s like diving for a glittering ancient artefact.

In March, Drakeo must have felt pretty set. He was out of jail for a few months. Cold Devil, his most well-received mixtape yet, had been streamed seven million times. Lil Yachty remixed his hit “Flu Flammin”, and Migos were calling him on FaceTime. The Stinc Team, his collective, and associated acts like Shoreline Mafia and 03 Greedo, were being hailed as the most exciting thing to happen to the west coast in years. The LA Times put him on the cover of the Sunday arts magazine, with veteran hip hop journalist Jeff Weiss calling his creative gifts “divinely ordained.” His singularity led to comparisons with LA rap’s Hall of Fame: Snoop, Tyler, Kendrick. It seemed like similar success was around the corner.

A few days later, he was locked up again, where he remains, accused of a murder he swears he didn’t commit, alongside other members of Shoreline and the Stinc Team. It’s not the first time he’s been in jail, but it is the most serious: the DA is pursuing the death penalty, or life. What actually happened is for the courts to decide, but in the words of Jeff Weiss, who interviewed Drakeo in jail and detailed the case on his personal site, “the allegations seem flimsy at best – sinister and vengeful at worst”. Drakeo is accused of orchestrating a killing by mistaken identity in 2016, which his lawyer told Weiss was “ridiculous... and we have every reason to believe the charges are being brought against him as a result of his fame.” (When asked, the LAPD said it does not comment on cases pre-trial.)

After a long back-and-forth, Dazed managed to speak to Drakeo from behind bars twice this year. The first was in late spring. 

Hi Drakeo! How are you?

Drakeo the Ruler: I’m set, I’m chilling, waiting to get my bail, whenever that’s going to happen, you know.

When’s the date?

Drakeo the Ruler: I go to court August 8. Free all the other homies out there too.

First things first, how did you start rapping? To be frank, you don’t really rap like anyone else.

Drakeo the Ruler: I always had my own sound, always made my own music. Even when I wasn’t taking it serious, it would still sound like nobody else.

Where does that come from?

Drakeo the Ruler: My lifestyle! Period. The way we be. Me and my brother, the team, the cars we drive, the life we live. Everything I do, it’s all linked. We had to code it, so wasn’t just like, “Oh, he’s just saying stuff.”

Tell me more about this coding.

Drakeo the Ruler: I don’t know how this came around, but...  Everybody has money. And everybody is saying “money.” Some people might have a lot. So, “You got uchies” means like, “You’ve got a lot of money.” You could say it’s boredom: I just don’t want to be saying those same words (as everyone else). There’s a lot of words I could use, but sometimes I want to experiment: if I say this word it’ll be more appealing. I could say the regular, straightforward stuff, but I don’t want to do what other people think of.

One of my favourite phrases of yours is mud walking. What does that mean?

Drakeo the Ruler: I lean everyday, so I’m always mud walking. I’m really high! (Laughs) It’s funny, it’s crazy, it’s like I’m walking on clouds. I might be mud walking but I’ll be having 20,000 thoughts. So I might be saying, “I had a meeting with God; I just might get to heaven, I’m a cup away from heaven...”

In the video for “Big Banc Uchies”, you walk on money. I’ve noticed you treat money with a kind of contempt.

Drakeo the Ruler: That’s how the whole Stinc Team think. We don’t care about money. We do not care about it. I’m more like blowing money fast. We will go out, and throw away 30,000 and go out and get it again. People are scared that they might not get the money again, but I really have been blown 20, 30,000 in one day. I couldn’t care less about how it goes.

What has ten years of drinking lean done to your music?

Drakeo the Ruler: I’m moving slower but my mind be moving fast. Maybe that’s how I’ll be coming up with stuff. My voice is slurred, and I’m just regularly talking, but it’s quiet. People would be like, “Yeah, you’ve got to speak up,” and I’ll be like, “Nah, I don’t: that’s how I want to rap.” People say it looks like you’re talking to yourself, but it’s really my mind just rambling between subjects.

When I imagine LA hip hop, there’s a pretty stable set of signifiers: Lowriders. Sunshine. A certain, let’s say, easiness to the music. None of this I see in your work. Where do you see yourself in the context of LA music?

Drakeo the Ruler: I see myself at the top, as the greatest ever. I started a whole new wave, and it’s taking a minute for everybody to catch on, but everybody knows who the Godfather is. (Laughs) I made it so that people know that this is the new age. I’m 24 years old, and I can’t be living in the past. I always tell people that I never had any of those cars, my first car was a BMW. Shoreline (Mafia), Stinc Team, Greedo, the new wave. It’s because of us. It’s the new west. The past can stay in the past.  

“When I get out, I can change anything: I can change who I hang around with, I can change my situation, what I’m doing with my life. But here, I can’t change anything” – Drakeo the Ruler

How does it feel to be facing down this sentence?

Drakeo the Ruler: I don’t know how to explain it, but I’m not worried. I don’t fear it: I’m not guilty, I’m nothing to do with it. I’m sitting here and it’s teaching me a lot: making me see who my friends were, and other than that... Whatever is going to happen is going to happen.

That seams like a wise adaption to the situation you’re in.

Drakeo the Ruler: I can’t change anything in here. When I get out, I can change anything: I can change who I hang around with, I can change my situation, what I’m doing with my life. But here, I can’t change anything. I’m still get paid for the rest of my life with this music stuff!

You said you’re innocent. Why do you think they wanted you for the murder?

Drakeo the Ruler: Because they saw who I was becoming, and they saw what people were saying. They saw my video views,  they see me on Instagram. I got charged a couple of days after they put me in the LA Times, so I guess that kind of pissed them off; I don’t know why. God always has the last laugh.

Did you know the person who died?

Drakeo the Ruler: I never knew him no. It’s crazy.

And the beef with and the rapper RJ, who the police accuse you of trying to murder?

Drakeo the Ruler: I don’t even have a problem with him. It’s just a music thing that they tried to blow out of proportion. How could I attempt to murder someone that I never talk to? It makes no sense –

The line goes dead. It seems we’re out of time, but we try to reconnect. That fails, so I chat for a few minutes to Keala, Drakeo’s aunt, who handles all calls, and TK Kimbro, Drakeo’s strong-minded manager. After a few minutes, we go our separate ways – me to bed, TK and Keala onto the rest of their afternoons, Drakeo to another day in LA Men's Central Jail. Over the coming weeks, we try to reschedule the interview, mostly unsuccessfully. Drakeo’s bail hearing gets put back, and put back again. In the meantime, he’s stuck there. It seems very arbitrary.

Poet and academic Jackie Wang talks about this in her brilliant book, Carceral Capitalism. “What is prison?,” she asks. “Immobility, yes, but also the manipulation of time as a form of psychic torture. The regimentation of time. The phenomenology of waiting. The agony of juridical limbo. The carceral ripple effect when any life is taken by the state, how it warps the temporalities of everyone in the orbit of the disappeared person.” Time is all we have, ultimately. Whether Drakeo is innocent is not for me to know, or judge. But I do know that even before the state decides this, he’s already paid a very high price: days, weeks and months, pieces of life extracted.

In the weeks between our conversations, Greedo, the brilliant LA rapper who Drakeo collaborated with earlier in the year, and another member of TK’s management company R Baron, has been sent down for 20 years on a charge in Texas. I try to speak to him, but I’m told that he is in post-trial processing, at least till the end of the year, during which time there is no contact with the outside world – not with friends, not with family, certainly not with music journalists. He joins the 2.3 million imprisoned in the US (a number that includes Jackie Wang’s brother, incidentally), the majority of whom are African-American or Latinx.

Eventually, in late August, Drakeo and I get to speak again.

How’s it going?

Drakeo the Ruler: It’s going slow, it’s going too slow. It could be worse. Nothing changes. Just sitting here making money sitting in jail. You know, streaming and all that.

Do you find that you need to protect yourself, in a way? To draw a line between what happens in your head and what happens in the exterior?

Drakeo the Ruler: Yeah, basically. What’s going on in my head and what’s going on right now is an experience, and I learnt how to adapt to things which are going on, (but) I don’t let it interfere with my music, because if I let my situation with right now interfere with my music, all I’ll be doing is rapping about fucking jail all day. And I’m not trying to be one of those rappers that just gets out of jail and raps about jail. I couldn’t care less about that. All I’m thinking is, ‘I’m going to get out and I’m just going to rap, and forget all about this shit.’

Could you tell me about what your day looks like? How do you spend your time?

Drakeo the Ruler: I go to class in the morning. I wake up, brush my teeth, go to school, because it makes the day go by faster. I go back to sleep, get on the phone, listen to beats, think about music, work out, listen to the radio, maybe watch TMZ. Then I take a shower, and I might read if I feel like it, write back to some fans that wrote to me, and then I just go to sleep then start it all over again. It just be the same thing everyday. Nothing changes. 

“Free everybody” – Drakeo the Ruler

What are you reading?

Drakeo the Ruler: I got a pile of books over there. Let me go look at the names. I’m reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver books. I got a lot of books.

Instagram has been part of your story in a few ways. The police were showing you pictures of your Instagram and your music videos on YouTube, right?

Drakeo the Ruler: Yeah! Basically they were showing me my Instagram. I never seen nothing like that before. They were showing me all of these Instagram pictures and stuff, and music videos. That’s just – ain’t no telling when these pictures were taken, or what these are... (Laughs) I don’t know what they was trying to do. I don’t even care what they were trying to do. 

Last year you were posting from inside jail. What were you posting?

Drakeo the Ruler: Oh yeah. I was just letting people know that I’m going to post an incredible mixtape when I get out.

And you did! 

Drakeo the Ruler: I done that mixtape in, like, ten days.

Speaking of stories, Kendall Jenner played you on her Instagram Stories on the way to Coachella. How did it feel to see someone living a very different life, just a few miles from you, enjoying your music?

Drakeo the Ruler: It felt kind of cool! I heard that (and) I was like, “Hell yeah! That’s the move!” I heard all these other people play my music. Everybody see my vision.

Is there anything else that you want to say to our readers?

Drakeo the Ruler: That I’m innocent, and we gonna be home soon. Free the Stinc. Free everybody.