Tyson Crookmind’s life story demands cinematic adaptation. You’d sell it to a Hollywood executive as a cross between Boyz n the Hood, The Shawshank Redemption and Straight Outta Compton.
Fade in on the Fremont District, between Central Avenue and Broadway, 92nd Street to Florence. It’s the mid-’80s and crack has conquered. As a child, Crookmind ran these blocks, raised by his mother and grandmother, after his father went to jail when the future rapper was just 3. After his release, Crookmind’s father would open legendary Inglewood nightclub the Dynasty, frequented by everyone from Showtime-era Lakers stars to Mike Tyson.
Crookmind’s uncles were more than a decade older, breakdancers who taught him about Doug E. Fresh, Whodini and Run-D.M.C. He fell in love with hip-hop just in time to receive the transmissions of asphalt wisdom from Ruthless Records, Death Row, Mac Dre, DJ Quik, 2Pac and E-40 that came later.
Before he began junior high, the streets were already calling.
“In the third grade, I told myself, ‘Imma sell dope and play basketball,’” Crookmind tells me, dressed in crisp blue jeans and a custom-made shirt with two cherries on it, an allusion to a Blood set but also his underground street hit, “Keep It Cherry,” released earlier this year. His watch and bracelet are diamond-encrusted and blindingly expensive.
“My uncle was the man of the house, a superhero to me, and I seen him and his friends do a bunch of shit,” Crookmind continues. “I had all the things that I wanted back then mapped out. And I got them; I accomplished all that bullshit in the streets.”
It also landed him 16 years, starting at age 18, in penitentiaries scattered across the state. While he was incarcerated on robbery and kidnapping charges, prosecutors pinned a murder charge on him from a previously cold case. Then a knife was found in his cell, another offense meriting a strike on his record.
By 23, he faced the terrifyingly real prospect of dying behind bars. But while in solitary confinement, he experienced a transformative spiritual epiphany.
“In this small little square room, I ended up motherfucking crying — not because I’m scared but because I was asking God, ‘Why me? Why is all this shit happening?’” Crookmind says. He speaks quietly, with the intensity of someone who has seen the unspeakable. The tears weren’t cowardice but catharsis, from decades of stress and trauma.
“All I had was my fucking heart, my will to survive and will to prove to myself that, irrespective of what everybody told me, I know who I am, what I’m worth and what I’m capable of,” Crookmind continues. “Once I cried, it felt great. It purified the soul.”
He dedicated himself to his own education, absorbing books and wisdom passed down to him from other inmates, many of whom were serving life sentences: the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Koran and the Bible, Shakespeare, Greek mythology, John Steinbeck. He also began writing raps, many of which wound up on his excellent debut, Free the Real, which dropped earlier this summer.
He finally obtained his freedom in late 2015, much too late to attend the funeral of his father, who was murdered in his Rolls-Royce in 2011. Until the biopic beckons, the stories are all in the music: a tale of tragedy, pain and ultimate redemption.
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“I’m an instrument, a vessel in the universe bearing a message,” Crookmind says. “I’m here to share my experiences in case you don’t have a daddy or a brother that’s still here. I don’t give a fuck what society says, I’m going to tell these stories regardless. That’s why I’m out of prison. What other purpose do I have to live?”
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