10. Nas - One Love (1994)
“What up kid? I know s*** is rough doing your bid / When the cops came you should have slid to my crib…”
An emotional highlight on Illmatic, Nas’ verses are not really ABOUT prison but basically a letter to his homie IN prison. The atmospheric xylophone beat-backdrop is provided by Q-Tip, whose voice also echos on the chorus.
9. 2Pac - 16 On Death Row (1992)
“Dear mama, they sentenced me to death / Today’s my final day, I’m counting every breath / I’m bitter cause I’m dying, so much I haven’t seen / I know you never dreamed, your baby would be dead at 16…”
Written and recorded in 1992, this track was one of the many posthumous 2Pac releases and included on the R U Still Down album. It relates the story of a young street thug who gets caught and locked up. With his typical passion and anger, 2Pac shows us the hopelessness and almost inevitable fate of many inner-city youths.
8. Capone N Noreaga - Phone Time (2002)
“I’m in jail pumpin iron son, and readin books…”
From Capone-N-Noreaga’s 2000 album The Reunion. The song has Noreaga conversing with Capone on the phone while Capone is in prison, – over a dope L.E.S.-produced instrumental.
7. Snoop Doggy Dogg - Murder Was The Case (1993)
“No more indo, gin and juice / I’m on my way to Chino, rolling on the grey goose / Shackled from head to toe / Twenty-five with an izz-el, with nowhere to gizzo…”
Snoop Dogg at his best, with top-notch production from Dr Dre to back up his (almost auto-biographical) storytelling. Classic.
6. Ludacris ft Beanie Sigel, Pimp C & C-Murder - Do Your Time (2006)
“If you doing 25 to life, stay up homie / I got your money on ice so, stay up homie / If you locked in the box keep makin’ it through / Do your time, don’t let your time do you”
Ludacris’ output has always been a mixed bag – he is capable of dopeness, but also of poppy wackness. This is a dope track however, on which guests Beanie Sigel, C-Murder, and Pimp C explain what they went through during recent prison stints.
5. Continental Five - Stress (2013)
“Hate the sound it makes when they close the gates / Wake up at six to eight / nasty cornflakes…”
Some hardcore stuff from 50 Cent’s cousin Continental Five a.k.a. Two-Five. Listen to this song and know prison is a place you don’t want to end up in.
4. Kool G Rap & DJ Polo - Rikers Island (1987)
“Just to hear the name it makes your spine tingle / This is a jungle where the murderers mingle / They say the place is crowded but there’s room for you / Whether you’re white or you’re black, you’ll be black and blue…”
This Marley Marl-produced track from Kool G Rap & DJ Polo is one of the hardest Kool G Rap has ever done. And it sends a clear message too: stay out of prison – “cause you won’t be smilin’ on Riker’s Island”.
3. Public Enemy - Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos (1988)
“I got a letter from the government the other day / I opened and read it, it said they were suckers / They wanted me for their army or whatever / Picture me giving a damn – I said never…”
This has to be one of the most impactful songs Public Enemy ever did, and that is saying something. A powerful story of a jailbreak, directed at the US government and its prison system. Hard-hitting lyrics, perfect instrumental – this is Public Enemy at its best.
2. Ice T - The Tower
“I’m rollin’ up in a big gray bus / And I’m shackled down / Myself that’s who I trust / The minute I arrived / Some sucker got hit / Shanked ten times / Behind some bullsh*t…”
The last song of Ice-T’s 1991 classic Original Gangster paints a harrowing picture of being incarcerated. The haunting and ominous instrumental perfectly enhances the lyrics.
1. Lifers Group - Belly Of The Beast (1991)
“I used to have a name, but now I got a number / I used to put suckers six feet under / Now I’m in jail, no longer a rebel / You can’t tell me a damn thing about the ghetto / I’ve been there…”
While other artists have written songs about prison that did not necessarily relate their own, real-life experiences about being incarcerated – this was a group formed in prison, by real inmates who were all serving sentences of 25 years to double life.
Recorded At East Jersey State Prison, New Jersey – this is a powerful message from the inside, telling listeners to wisen up and stay out. “This record ain’t no joke – learn at the expense of our sorrows and don’t end up in the belly of the beast.” This is the real deal.
- Lifers Group – The Real Deal (1991)
- WC & The MAAD Circle – Out On A Furlough (1991)
- 2Pac – Trapped (1991)
- The Convicts – Penitentiary Blues (1991)
- Tim Dog – Goin’ Wild In The Penile (1991)
- Da Lench Mob – Lost In The System (1992)
- Tragedy – Death Row (1993)
- Akinyele – 30 Days (1993)
- Slick Rick – Behind Bars (1994)
- X-Raided – 25 To Life (1995)
- Nas – Last Words (1999)
- Mac Dre – I’ve Been Down (1999)
- Beanie Sigel – What Ya Life Like (2000)
- Dead Prez – Police State (2000)
- MF Grimm – Voices Pt 0 (2002)