One of America’s most inventive rappers is serving a 20-year sentence on non-violent drug charges. We speak to the artist from behind bars about what comes next
Jason Jamal Jackson gets through most of his days at the Middleton Unit prison in Abilene, Texas, without interacting with another soul. America’s rampant coronavirus outbreak has resulted in more than half of the prison’s 1,847 inmates testing positive for COVID-19, and the solution has been to periodically isolate prisoners, cutting off their contact with the outside world. Like many prisons in America, the idea of putting young Black men in solitary confinement has been uncomfortably normalised. To fill the void, Jackson – known to most as west coast rapper 03 Greedo – has been jotting down lyrics that he says are “on a new level” and a lot more socially conscious than anything he’s rapped before.
Jackson is currently sitting out a 20-year sentence. In 2016, he was arrested and charged with drug trafficking and possession of a firearm after being found carrying 400 grams of methamphetamine during a traffic stop. He took a plea deal and was sentenced to 20 years in prison (he was initially facing 300 years), which he started in 2018, with the potential of being released after five years with good behavior. But while he was set to become eligible for parole in July 2020, this was denied by the prison’s parole board, and he now has to wait until 2021 for his next hearing. Rap writer Jeff Weiss, one of the first journalists to spotlight Jackson’s music, tweeted that the decision was a “tragic and punitive decision that highlights how evil our criminal justice system is. One of the most gifted artists of his generation is losing his life over a non-violent drug charge.”
Make no mistake, Jackson, who has the words “Living Legend” unmistakably tattooed on his face, is truly gifted. With over 20 mixtapes and albums to his name, he’s established an eccentric take on gangster rap that has taken west coast hip hop to nutty new sonic heights. God Level and Purple Summer 03 are expansive masterpieces, and his tracks – built around a half-chanted, half-rapped, dexterous vocal style that is uniquely his own – shift between making gangsters feel unbreakable (“Fortnite”) and wanting to break down in tears (“For My Dawgs”). Jackson sings the blues over trap beats that sound like they were dipped in Ayahuasca, his layered melodies both sunny and shark eye black. He has managed to fit more great music into 10 years than most artists do in a lifetime.
The artist recently celebrated his 33rd birthday behind bars. He previously referred to his circumstances as being part of a wider “trap” to imprison young Black men on drug charges, claiming in an interview with The FADER that his lengthy sentence reflected his status as a successful rapper. It’s a fate that mirrors fellow LA rapper Drakeo the Ruler (who is under the same management company as 03 Greedo, R Baron), who was acquitted of murder in 2019, yet still faces a life sentence after contentious charges for criminal gang conspiracy and shooting from a motor vehicle were re-filed against him. An onlooker might surmise that Black artists are being made an example of. “If you look at me and Drakeo the Ruler’s situations right now,” Jackson says, speaking down a fuzzy prison pay phone, “then we’re really going through hell.”
In prison, Jackson has been studying for his general equivalency diploma (GED), a qualification for people who did not complete high school the first time. He’s also reading a book about the G-Funk era of west coast rap – not that he’s too impressed. “They weren’t trying to make anything original,” he says, matter-of-factly. “They were taking old funk music and putting their twist on it. We ain’t trying to copy people who were trying to copy someone else. I am making a whole new universe of sounds.”
Jackson is the antithesis to the studio thug. As a member of the Grape Street Crips, he’s a gangster rapper who instinctively understands LA’s gang culture. On the oddly soothing “Life”, he spits, “Might grow old in prison, but you can’t call me a snitch, right?” with the pride of a Hollywood actor running through their Oscar acceptance speech. Yet he wants people to learn a positive lesson from his pain and for the media to start empathising with gang members rather than continuing to dismiss their humanity. “Every time I rap, I’m representing every single person in the Jordan Downs projects,” he enthuses. “I want to help the people where I’m from navigate their pain and to make outsiders realise why we are the way we are.”
“Every time I rap, I’m representing every single person in the Jordan Downs projects. I want to help the people where I’m from navigate their pain” – 03 Greedo
Jordan Downs is the 700-unit housing project in Watts where Jackson grew up. The area is known for gang violence (classic hood movie Menace II Society was filmed there) and the infamous ‘Watts Rebellion’ of 1965, a riot prompted by an act of police brutality. In Watts, the average life expectancy is 72.8 years, eight years lower than the rest of LA, while Jordan Downs itself is among the top 10 per cent of neighbourhoods disproportionately affected by pollution within Los Angeles County. Growing up there isn’t easy. “People from my community are hardened because they’ve endured so much loss,” Jackson says. “We lose a lot more people than white people with a 9-to-5, and we’re going through more financial hardships and trust issues. My music is mostly me trying to humanise what people think is mafia. It’s about getting shit off my chest so I don’t do the wrong thing in the streets.”
Resilience is hard-coded into Jackson’s DNA. Throughout different junctures of his 20s, Jackson was homeless. While sleeping in alleyways and on friend’s floors, he had recurring dreams of rapping to infinite crowds of people, his name etched in lights. His vision of becoming the first gang member from the Jordan Downs housing projects to achieve the status of pop culture icon never wavered, regardless of the situations he found himself in, like being brutally shot in his left leg (doctors wanted to amputate it, but he kept the faith – as well as the leg, which is now fused with metal), or attending funeral-after-funeral of murdered friends.
Jeremiah “Picaso” Aubert, an A&R who discovered 03 Greedo after finding his music online, says Jackson’s mental toughness comes from his rough childhood. Jackson lost his father tragically and suddenly when he was just one. Later on as a teenager, he would gain experience on both sides of the drug transaction, both dealing and using. His battle with addiction is reflected in the haunted melody of “Substance”, which channels the malevolent yet hypnotic grip of drugs such as MDMA, lean and cocaine. It’s like the trap equivalent to The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin”. Picaso describes Jackson as being “eating out of trash cans-level homeless” while later moving across America and living in St Louis, Atlanta, Kansas, and Sacramento.
He says that every one of his R Baron business partner and friend’s album covers brings you directly into his story: Purple Summer 03 shows Jackson being apprehended by bounty hunters just before going to jail (he asked his friend to photograph him), while First Night Out is the first photo of the rapper walking through the airport gate straight after returning from a stretch in a Texan prison. “Greedo knows the power of showing Black people his pain. He knows it will help them understand their own,” Picaso says. “I guess Greedo is so tough because he has had to fight to survive.”
One of the most astonishing things about Jackson is how effortlessly he is able to tap into so many different genres, shifting between rap, punk, R&B, pop, funk and the blues. By his own admission, he’s just as inspired by Max B’s Public Domain 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer as he is the Eagles’ Hotel California. His track “Bally X Balmain” sounds like the spiritual successor to Kanye’s nihilistic Yeezus punk-rap highlight, “Send It Up”. “Freak”, which samples Lana Del Rey’s track of the same name, sees the rapper take the Lynchian pop siren into the strip clubs. “Visions” is Jackson pensively singing country over a sombre acoustic guitar, a sad cowboy weighing up his options while also working out if he can handle the weight. Jackson can master any type of sound, and doesn’t believe in a comfort zone. “The idea of making two albums that sound the same disgusts me,” Jackson explains to me. “No one wants to see the same movie from the same director over and over. I don’t want to sound like a hater, but people are making the same song over and over, and that shit is boring. I can’t stand still, ever.”
Picaso says he was wowed by the rapper’s creativity almost instantly. “You would think his vocals are all Auto-Tuned, but 80 per cent of the time there’s no effect on Greedo’s voice at all. He naturally sounds like this and he’s always in key. That’s just his funky ass voice,” he says. “One day, we were recording in the Eagles’ old studio. Greedo is a big fan, because he grew up listening to all their stuff, so he was geeking out and shit. Literally the second we loaded up the beat, he got a call saying that his cousin, who he was just with two hours before, had been killed in the street. Greedo put his head down for five seconds and then walked into the booth and recorded a tribute song, ‘For My Dawgz’, in one take. The melodies, the hook, the verses – everything.” The song, which sounds like 2Pac’s “So Many Tears” for the Lean era, is pure pain.
Picaso believes that the reason Jackson is so versatile in the studio, is partly down to the make-up of his hometown. “If you go to LA and you go over there to Greedo’s projects, it’s like another country,” he says. “It’s raw, like early, pre-Katrina New Orleans projects. They’re not listening to any west coast rap down there. They’re bumping Master P, Cash Money, Nelly, Max B, Lana Del Rey, Blink-182. It’s why Greedo can channel all sorts of weird shit and, like, do a whole EP with Travis Barker.” It’s one of the reasons that Jackson was so dismissive of the G-Funk book he was reading. “Look, I’m from the Eastside of LA – we never played G-Funk music,” Jackson says. “A lot of the people there are from Louisiana, so we’ve been more inspired by the South.” For him, the idea of following in the footsteps of another artist is torture. “The only person he really wants to emulate is Phil Collins,” Picaso adds, separately. “He loves the emotional clarity in his voice. That might be his favourite artist.”
In US state prisons, people of colour with drug charges make up 60 per cent of those serving time. It’s a subject that Jackson has often explored in his music, mournfully crooning about going “Back to Jail”, or conceding: “I’m locked in a cell with no windows / Lately, I’ve been having these visions, I’m out of my mind. I done had a life that’s hard,” on “Visions”. Both songs sound like he’s on his knees in a six-by-eight cell, begging God for salvation. He’s a mirror to what so many working class Black men have to endure in America, with Jackson telling me he’s a “representative for people from the slums”.
“I feel like, shit, music is really about organised noise and sounds that affect you emotionally,” he says of his process in the studio. “When you watch certain movies, the score was what made the scene so visceral. If you’re watching a scary movie and you hear those big ass piano keys in the right place, then that shit scares you, right? Or if you’re watching Boyz in da Hood and they put in eerie strings that ring out like police sirens, then it instantly makes you feel like you’re in the ghetto. I try to make my music like a score for my section. That was what Nipsey Hussle taught me. He was a real mentor to me.”
Nipsey, an influential Crip-affiliated gangster rapper, was a vocal supporter of 03 Greedo, hyping his album Money Changes Everything before it was released in interviews, and opening Eastsider Jackson’s music up to the Westside of LA. He was murdered in 2019, outside his Marathon clothing store in Slauson, all while Jackson was sitting in jail. He says he learned so much from Nipsey, even if some of their values were different. “One of the first things I’m going to do when I’m free is buy a Ferrari F-40,” Jackson says. “I’m already in the process of buying one. People from my neighbourhood need to see one of us who made it to drive these foreign cars and wear these icy chains! Some people, like my bro Nipsey, didn’t do the flashy shit. I understand why, but if you been homeless and slept on floors and air mattresses that was deflating and shit then, man, you need jewellery! I went from dollar menu at McDonalds to eating whole lobster and wagyu beef. Yes, I want to continue the positive social work Nipsey was doing – but I feel like I deserve to enjoy this, too.”
Having spent most of the 2010s building up his name locally, dropping classic mixtape after mixtape and getting to the stage where his songs were being played out of just about every car in the hoods of Los Angeles, Jackson looked ready to take a leap similar to artists like Lil Wayne and Future by turning an eclectic street mixtape run into a gargantuan pop career. “I feel like Future, making Dirty Sprite to Black Woodstock, his shit always sounds different, even though he is the same artist,” he says, welcoming my comparison. “If you can’t hear the influence of Weezy, then you crazy. Those legendary mixtape runs those two had were always something I wanted to emulate. I knew if I could achieve that then I could take my career to the next level and be bigger than any rapper that came before me.”
One of the albums that was supposed to consolidate Jackson’s climb into the mainstream was 2019’s Netflix and Deal, a collaborative project with the brilliant rap producer Kenny Beats. It had a cinematic sheen that suggested Jackson was ready to occupy a similar lane in the mainstream to rap outliers such as Young Thug and Lil Uzi Vert (who is a big fan of 03 Greedo’s, and appeared on the excellent “Never Bend” remix). It was a critical success, with a lot of its music recorded while Jackson was on the run and trying to record as many tunes as humanly possible before surrendering to the authorities. Although its big name guests were plentiful (Vince Staples, Freddie Gibbs, Maxo Kream, KEY!), nobody outshined Greedo, whose Auto-Tuned vocals sliced through each track with an addictive waviness.
“He’s a special artist. All the UK guys I work with, like slowthai, Headie One, and Octavian, ask me what he’s really like” – Kenny Beats
Sadly, Jackson’s sentence softened its commercial impact. Jackson hasn’t even had the chance to listen to the album on a pair of headphones yet. “I want to listen, but knowing I had this case and was fighting against a life sentence means I had to rush a lot of this music out,” he says. “I was just listening to Money Changes Everything the other day and it created flashbacks of the circumstances in which it was recorded. It was so stressful. I don’t want to work like that anymore. I want to be able to enjoy my music.”
Kenny Beats laughs lovingly as he describes Jackson as his wise uncle. “He’s got the perfect voiceover voice!” Kenny says. “Greedo is like a cartoon character for just how animated his voice is. There’s a super villain lion thing going on that’s so fucking cool. When you’re in the studio with him, his eyes look like he is really mad, even when he’s smiling real big. It’s a crazy juxtaposition, but that’s because of the pain that sits so deeply within him.” He adds that he’s never seen anyone with his work rate, either. “He’s a special artist,” Kenny says. “All the UK guys I work with, like slowthai, Headie One, and Octavian, ask me what he’s really like. Look, he could record 20 songs in one day and nearly all of them are street anthems or music capable of making me want to cry. The way he brings you into his life story is so unique.”
Jackson says he’s actually capable of completing 30 songs in a day – it’s just that not many engineers can match his pace. It sounds exhausting, but he knows he has to squeeze life out of every single moment in the studio. Meanwhile, Kenny believes that the “Genius.com dudes” who dismiss Jackson as a top tier lyricist aren’t listening properly. “He talks in a language that’s very unique. His melodies are layered and textured in a way that’s sophisticated as fuck. He has full creative control of his sound; everything is planned. If people did a session with him then I’m sure their minds would be blown by the Creep Music.” ‘Creep Music’ is how Jackson describes his sound, which intentionally shifts between a feeling of giddy euphoria and bone-chilling paranoia, symbolising how Black men in America continuously need eyes in the back of their head.
Kenny gets noticeably choked up while he speaks about Jackson, perhaps because the rapper has truly pushed him to evolve as a musician. “There’s a song (‘Aye Twin’) I did with 100 gecs that Greedo jumped on! I think he was always teaching me a lesson,” Kenny explains. “Greedo taught me to not have an agenda or idea of what his sound was. He nearly always picked the beats I made for other artists. He pushed me out of my comfort zone. It is the sickest process I go through with any artist – he records a song in one take and with no edits, and then the whole of LA is singing it!”
As well as the recent release of potent new collaborative album Load It Up Vol. 1 with producer Ron Ron, Jackson has a full length album recorded with Hit-Boy finished. Picaso calls it a “masterpiece”. He’s also finished a “sexy ass” collaborative R&B project with Ty Dollar $ign, and has at least another six unreleased finished albums ready to go. Jackson even has eight to 10 music videos that he masterminded before going to prison, all just waiting for the right moment. Add approximately 2,800 unreleased songs to the mix, and it’s clear he’s capable of ruling west coast rap from his prison cell. “When he and Drakeo get out of prison, it’s going to be like Death Row Records in 95, when 2Pac was freed,” says Picaso. “The energy is going to shake the planet off its axis. Greedo is going to go global, trust me.”
Jason Jamal Jackson is already visualising what he will do when he’s finally released. “I want to make a mixtape called 03 the Iceman, and talk about what I went through in jail and what it was like being on the run,” he reveals. “But then a few weeks later, I am going to release a record called The Life I Deserve, and talk about what is good with the world and keeping my people safe. It is important I do that.” The artist he most wants to collaborate with is pop star Dua Lipa, closely followed by Lana Del Rey, Cardi B, Lil Wayne, and Polo G. The choices tell you everything you need to know about how the “universe of sounds” Jackson has created might grow in the future.
Yet according to Picaso, Jackson, who must be spiritually exhausted from constantly battling the odds, might end up disappearing out of LA and buying his own farm with a music studio attached, possibly somewhere in the deep south. He likes the idea of his friend riding off on a horse into the sunset and making a soul-cleansing country album, not a worry in the world.
Jackson’s own assessment is even simpler. “I want to be free so I can spread my love around this whole planet,” he says. “I just want to live, man. That’s it.”
This interview was conducted in April, before George Floyd’s murder at the hands of US police officers. You can write to Greedo in prison at: Jason Jackson, TDCJ #02208297, 13055 FM 3522, Abilene, TX 796010, and listen to a playlist of 03 Greedo’s music here.