The sheriff’s deputies know Darrell Caldwell as Inmate 4872139, one of approximately 4,800 incarcerated inside the dystopian slab that is the Men’s Central Jail. But to thousands of prisoners and tens of thousands of others on the streets, he’s more familiar as Drakeo — one of the best and most popular young rappers in L.A.
For the last six weeks, Drakeo, 23, has been locked inside this overcrowded concrete purgatory just east of Chinatown. The arrest happened shortly after New Year’s, when police raided a condo near LAX, where Drakeo and his Stinc Team crew shot their videos.
When they burst into the condo, Drakeo was hanging out in the building’s parking lot. Despite the fact that it wasn’t his condo, and his claim that none of the guns confiscated there were his, the officers arrested Drakeo and several others (including his brother, who raps as Ralphy the Plug), charging him with six counts of unlawful possession of firearms by a felon.
The following day Drakeo’s son was born. To date, he’s only seen him through the jail’s 6-inch-thick glass.
“It felt like they planned it that way,” Drakeo says, when I visit him at the jail. He steadfastly maintains his innocence as we speak through telephones, divided by a protective barrier.
Dressed in standard-issue county blues, Drakeo seems younger and more soft-spoken than in the videos that burnished his legend. For all the myth-making camera shots of semi-automatics, foreign cars and lean, it’s Drakeo’s unique slang and unorthodox, opiated, drawling flow that made him a star.
“It’s how me and the homies have always talked. Everyone would always ask, ‘Why y’all talk like that?’” Drakeo says. “I don’t understand how people can use ghostwriters. I’m trying to bring an original style and never sound like anyone else.”
William Blake once wrote, “I must create a system for myself or be enslaved by another man’s.” In Drakeo’s “lingo bingo,” “uchies” are money; a “shenaynay” is the extended clip on a rifle. Enemies are “Shirleys,” as in Shirley Temples. He calls himself the “foreign whip crasher,” “Mr. Get Dough,” and “Mr. Mosely” (“Mosely” meaning lean).
The singular vocabulary and zigzag cadences align him with artists like E-40, Suga Free and Gucci Mane.
“Everyone in here tells me that I’m going to be like the L.A. Gucci when I get out,” Drakeo says, which is probably the most accurate comparison.
Rapping came as an afterthought, the most viable legal way to make a fortune. Drakeo was raised in South Central; his mother teaches preschool and he never knew his father. He was arrested for the first time at 12 and sent to “camp,” a youth correctional facility.
I ask what he was like as a kid and he replies with one word: “Bad.” I ask if he rapped while at Washington High. “Hell nah,” he replies. “I was only into getting money.”
Attempting to duck penitentiary chances, he began rhyming but never took it seriously until friends told him that he had a gift.
“I thought they were joking,” he says with a laugh. But he knew YG’s brother, who introduced him to DJ Mustard, who gave Drakeo his first break with the song “Mr. Get Dough.” Three excellent mixtapes followed over the last 18 months; they went viral strictly off word-of-mouth, SoundCloud and YouTube. No blog hype, additional co-signs or radio. When it’s raw and uncut, the product sells itself.
“I want everyone to know I’ll be home soon,” he says, hopeful that he’ll be able to post bail any day.
I ask what he’ll do first when he gets home.
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“Hit the studio,” he says. “And see my son.” I try to ask another question but the answer cuts off. The phone goes silent — visiting time is over.