This article was published in collaboration with Vice.
Two years ago, the website WorldStarHipHop released a music video under the headline, “South Carolina Inmates Film 1st Ever Music Video In Prison!” In it, seven men in a prison cell at Kershaw Correctional Institution crowd in front of a bunk bed and exuberantly perform two songs they’ve written, “I’m On” and “Mix Da Game Up.” The performance, captured on a cell phone smuggled into the prison, has now been viewed more than a million times.
Much of that attention came in October 2015 when Dave Maass, a researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties advocacy group, released public records showing that the men were subsequently sentenced to a combined 20 years in solitary confinement, along with the loss of visitation, commissary, and phone privileges. They had been deemed members of a “Security Threat Group” — a prison gang. David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told Buzzfeed News in October that even “a year or six months [in solitary] is grossly excessive,” while South Carolina Department of Corrections spokeswoman Stephanie Givens argued the men were “gang members and a continued threat to safety.”
One of those prisoners was 28-year-old Desmond Metcalf, a.k.a. Yung Real, who has since been released. He served more than six years for a string of burglaries in Columbia, S.C. Below, he describes the process of making the video and what his life has been like since.
I started rapping in high school, kicking it with homeboys and thinking about old times, and someone would crank up the beatbox and we’d get to flowing. But it was all freestyling; I never wrote anything down until I got to prison. That was in 2010.
I met the guys in the video in my dorm at Kershaw Correctional Institution. We all had similar charges — robberies, manslaughter — so we were all in medium custody, the place where they put the bad kids, the ones who get in trouble a lot. In the dorm, some people play cards or dominoes, or cook. We’d have rap sessions. Someone would bang on the door to create a beat, and we’d take turns freestyling.
One time we got to perform for visitors at an appreciation event for the pastors who worked inside. We did some gospel rap songs, and there was one woman in the crowd in a wheelchair. We had a song that went, “If you a leader like I’m a leader then stand up.” And she grabbed her neighbor’s hand and got up out of the chair.
One of us had a cell phone. They’re very common in prisons, at least in this state. Visitors, officers, and other staffers bring them in. They come to work at the prison to get their check, but some come to get their check, if you know what I’m saying. I’ve seen a guard get a $1,000 for a $20 cell phone from Walmart. And a touch-screen? Oh man, you’re catchin’ a goldmine right there. They investigate, but they can’t stop it.
They say people use the phones to set up hits1 on the street. But there are also people who use the phones to pay bills for their families, like rent, water, cable, car insurance. I saw a guy buy a car for his family from inside. And of course entertainment. We don’t have nothing to do, so you want to keep up with what’s happening in the world, with loved ones. Lots of people can’t afford to call with the official phones, and others will loan out their cell phones. A lot is done with Green Dot prepaid debit cards, so in one of our songs, I rapped, “They call me Green Dot.”
The first song on the video is called “I’m On,” and it was written by Joshua Frazier. We just did the chorus with him, bouncing around and singing along. I co-wrote the second song, “Mix Da Game Up.” It came from meeting one of the other rappers, Kasper Mingo from Greenville, and then another guy from Charleston — I’m from Columbia. We were like, “Yo! We’re from the top three cities in South Carolina. We’re mixing the game up, covering the whole map!” And in Charleston, they say the word “mix” a lot, so our friend said, “Mix, mix, we ‘bout to mix da game up.” And we just cranked it up. The guards make rounds every 30 minutes, so we waited after they came by and then we took off. We had a blast.
The guy who made the beat was named Quincy. You give that man three toothbrushes and a door and he’ll make a studio-sounding beat.
At first we were just going to put it on Facebook to show it to our friends. But then one of my friends, who is a music promoter, sent it to WorldStarHipHop. It did so well that one of the security guards found out. They locked down the block and took us out of our cells one by one to talk to investigators. An investigator said to me, “I want to congratulate you. I like your part of the video. You guys have a million views.” He was actually smiling. The guards put on some anger for each other, but you know, we were well-known for rapping, singing, creating trouble. It’s like in school where the principal knows your name. They knew who we were.
Other guys in the prison would say things like, “Ya’ll boys gonna be famous now!” It was mostly positive feedback. People said, “Ya’ll gotta get out there and keep doing it. Stay focused.” When you do something like that in prison, some people treat you a little like a celebrity; they look at you but they don’t say anything. And of course some people didn’t like that we wanted to be famous.
The investigators asked us: “Why did you do it?” And I thought, What do you mean? We’re rappers! Of course we want exposure.
They said we were a gang. A couple of the guys were part of some different organizations, but as you can see, we all get along, bouncing around together, coming together for a cause, and that’s to make music. It wasn’t about promoting gangs. We were promoting music, showing people that just because we’re locked up doesn’t mean we don’t have talent.
They sent me to solitary for 11 months, but the good news is it didn’t affect my sentence or anything. I got out last October, and now I’m back in Columbia. I’ve been in the studio recording a couple songs, trying to make a mixtape — something light, for the streets, showing people who I am. I’m hoping that prison video will help get my name out. I meet a lot of people and show it to them and they remember watching it when it came out. The world has seen it.
Now we’ve just got to get our names out there.