The universe has a weird way of teaching us lessons based on the decisions we make in our lives. One little mistake or lapse of judgment can derail everything and place you in predicaments you never would’ve thought you’d experience. For David Jassy, life came to a screeching halt in a matter of minutes when a fateful choice altered his life forever.
In 2008, the Swedish creative was arrested in Los Angeles for his involvement in an altercation that left one man dead. Witnesses say Jassy got into a fight with another man who hit the front of his car while crossing the street. Jassy, in a fit of rage, exited his car, punched the guy and kicked him in the head before running him over with his car. The man was pronounced dead at the hospital while Jassy was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to life.
What happened next would be a chain of events that Jassy tells HipHopDX was an eye-opening moment for him. Inside his cell inside California’s Solano State Prison, Jassy turned to music whenever he began losing hope. His guitar became his best friend as the violence and constant lockdowns pushed many inmates to their breaking point. The strums of his guitar had Jassy keep a positive outlook on his situation while helping him be on his best behavior. As a result, Jassy was later transferred to San Quentin State Prison, also in California.
While there, Jassy was inspired to create a music curriculum through the Youthful Offender Program, which allowed young inmates the chance to participate in rehabilitation programs. The San Quentin Music Project was born, and Jassy taught inmates how to record and produce music while helping them hone their songwriting skills. Interest grew within the prison population, and Jassy knew there was something special about this program.
“I saw that transition and the transformation in all these young men that I was working with,” Jassy explains to HipHopDX. “A lot of them, once they started the program, stopped doing all the other stuff that they had to do in prison. All of a sudden, they had something else that they could do to let out any stress.”
Days would go by, and the number of inmates that joined the program inspired Jassy to create a mixtape that would be played on the prison’s institutional channel. However, word got out about it and Jassy found himself teaming up with DreamCorps and their criminal justice reform group #cut50 to bring the project outside the walls of San Quentin.
Through donations from friends in the music industry and years of working with local officials to get approval, the San Quentin Mixtapes, Vol. 1 became a reality. In four years, Jassy and a select group of inmates wrote, recorded and produced the entire mixtape. Celebrities and artists like Kim Kardashian West, J. Cole and Common caught wind of the project and visited San Quentin wasting no time showing their support.
When asked how the inmates felt working on the project and seeing the support they were receiving, Jassy says it was a life-changing experience for all of them.
“A lot of their time was used on this project. They were busy writing hooks, they were busy writing verses and bars, and it changed their focus,” Jassy explains. “What happened was all of a sudden, they started dreaming about a better future for themselves. Before this, they didn’t have that opportunity. A lot of the guys that are now out are now pursuing a music career.”
If you told Jassy 12 years ago that he would be taking on a project of this magnitude and later be released from prison because of it, he wouldn’t have believed you. The number of years it took to not only receive the audio equipment but getting officials on board nearly made Jassy give up. But while fighting with the thought of quitting, Jassy continued to ask himself and God what his purpose was being apart of all this.
“I used to have those ‘God, why’ conversations. Why California? Why am I here? What’s my purpose here,” he says. “I prayed to go back to my country because there were so many obstacles to this project. But divine intervention came into play.”
HipHopDX spoke more with David Jassy about San Quentin Mixtapes, Vol. 1, what prison was like for him, the journey from creating the program to releasing an actual mixtape, how he got the inmates to be vulnerable with their lyrics, his thoughts on his rehabilitation, how his relationship with God is even stronger now and more.
HipHopDX: San Quentin Mixtapes, Vol. 1 is finally out after all these years. How do you feel?
David Jassy: It’s a crazy time right now and it’s a lot of things happening, not only in America but all over the world. I think this is a time where we also shouldn’t forget about the ones that are incarcerated. It’s a blessing and to finally have this project out. I’m really proud that we got all the songs out in time and everything was done in time.
HipHopDX: What was your experience like in prison?
David Jassy: Prison is not what you expect it is. There are certain elements that are accurate but I think a lot of people forget that people in prison also lead normal lives. We go to the canteen, we do our laundry in a bucket, it’s real old school. We go to college, we take self-health groups. I mean, it’s a lot of stuff that people don’t know about prison. Is there violence? Yes, there’s violence. Is it a dangerous environment? Absolutely, yes. But there’s also a lot of rehabilitation that’s taking place and I think that’s the side that a lot of people don’t get to see.
There are a lot of guys that changed their lives for the better and they’re really trying to make an impact on society and really trying to get back out there and live productive lives. Most guys really just want to get back to their families, because I think that’s one of the biggest problems with the mass incarceration is the separation of families. There are so many kids growing up without their parents that are incarcerated, both mom and dads. It’s like a cycle that just keeps going on and on, especially in minority communities, and I think it’s a big issue.
HipHopDX: What were some of the factors that drove you to make this project?
David Jassy: There are a lot of different factors that helped me make this decision. My thing was I didn’t want to emphasize the curse words and glorifying crimes. We’re all in prison right now and we all made a terrible decision. This is our chance to pretty much show the world that, look, we know we made a bad decision, but we don’t want anybody else to make that bad decision, and therefore we’re giving you the game of what not to do, and telling you the story of how we messed up. You could still talk about the struggle and everything you came from but to me, this is actually the most real you can be because now you’ve really got to find other words instead of just coming up with quick curse words to just put inside to express your frustration.
HipHopDX: Did you have any concerns about this mixtape? I know you had rival gang members work on the project together.
David Jassy: Absolutely! Because anything can happen in prison and it can happen pretty quickly. Prison politics are extremely complex and there are so many different factions and different interests. But, I really believed in this project really hard, and I went in for it. I also communicated this belief very honestly to the people that were running certain factions. I had a lot of laps around the yard that I spent with a lot of different people from different sets. I spoke to a lot, a lot of people in there. Once people started to understand what this really was about, they started supporting it.
HipHopDX: How did you go about picking which inmates would be included on the project?
David Jassy: I didn’t discriminate at all. I let anybody that wanted to participate in the program get on. I gave everybody a chance to get on the mic. Some songs didn’t make it on volume one, but they will be on volume two. Other guys dropped out of the program because they may have seen that some of the guys were better and they felt like they didn’t really keep up to the standard, but that was very few people. Most guys that actually came to the studio actually knew how to rap.
HipHopDX: You’ve worked in so many genres in your music career. Why was Hip Hop the way to go for this mixtape?
David Jassy: A lot of times, I think, grownups always wonder what’s wrong with their kid and why they do certain things. But how often do we take the time to actually listen to what they got to say? We should listen to why they’re angry and I think rap is a perfect way to do it because you can really express it in a way that is relatable and it becomes a mantra if you really listen to the songs over and over.
Even me producing this mixtape, as I’m recording a lot of these guys it was like, I hear the rap and I think I heard everything they say, but as I listen back a few times, I was amazed by how talented they were at forming certain sentences and punchlines. Some of the punchlines hit you like the fifth time when you listen to it. To me, that’s real Hip Hop. That’s the Hip Hop that I miss when I used to listen to old DJ Clue tapes. This is not out for money or fame, but this is really to just speak their minds and warn younger kids about this criminal lifestyle.
HipHopDX: How do you feel giving these inmates a huge opportunity like this that they would probably never see?
David Jassy: I’m super excited for everybody on there. I’ve had text messages from the guys that paroled already and they say, “Man, my mom is so proud.” It feels good to just know that they can come back to their families and say, “Look, I know I messed up, but I didn’t just waste my time in prison. Look what I’ve done.” I get goosebumps just thinking about the fact that the world gets to hear these guys. It gives me goosebumps because they finally have something to show. Now, their family members don’t look at them as only failures but actually like success stories. When I heard “my mom is so proud of me, she crying,” that’s it right there for me man. That’s the true reward.
HipHopDX: There’s a belief that you need to be tough in order to survive in prison. How’d you get these guys to be so vulnerable and shed their tough personas on the mixtape?
David Jassy: We used to have a lot of these discussions. Once you’re in prison you see a lot of different things. You often see the puffed-up guy always walking around, super tough. They’re not always the hardest guy. These youngsters, they know more than you think because they see a lot and they’re extremely strong. Being humble is actually the hardest thing you can do and that’s hard because it’s easy to be tough. But being humble when everybody around you ain’t, that’s hard. Some of the things we talked about were just being vulnerable and finding your true self, being your authentic self, no matter what nobody else says.
They also felt safe because I always made sure that whenever you’re in the studio, there ain’t no, “What set you from? Where you from?” There was no gangbanging or hostile environment because we’re family. I really wanted to create an environment where everybody felt welcome. We also had Raphaele Casale, who’s the warden’s assistant, and she almost became like a mom for them. She used to sit and talk to them because she could get other answers from them that I couldn’t get because they felt like they were talking to a mom-type figure. We used that dynamic a lot where she could reach more inside of their heart.
HipHopDX: Talk about your relationship with God throughout this project because you’ve mentioned you hit a lot of setbacks that almost thwarted your whole idea.
David Jassy: Before I was arrested, I was running too fast. I grew up in church, but I got away from God and the industry, and just the life that I was living. I was living a very fast life and sometimes God just sits you down to slow you down. I received a life sentence and if that doesn’t humble you, then I don’t know. But it sure humbled me, and it brought me closer to God. I had to realize that there was something inside of me that was broken and I had to fix it. I had to dig deep on why I committed the crime that I committed and I had to deal with my anger issues. I really had to do some soul searching.
Oftentimes I prayed for those in charge to see that there was nothing evil in this project. Everything here is for the better, it’s not for anything bad. This is just pure good. All revenue boost goes to the National Center for Victims of Crime, Boys and Girls Club of Oakland and Potrero Hill Neighborhood House. We’ve given everything back to the community and we’re also giving a message back to the youth. It’s also inspiring other people in prison to see these inmates turn their life around. Once they see all the attention that the mixtape gets that inspires them to do better. Some guys just want to hear they’re valuable and something. Sometimes that’s enough. I say it’s God, man. I really feel it’s God. I really do.
HipHopDX: In March, your sentence was commuted and you were released on parole right at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. What are your thoughts on prison reform especially in a time where the virus is hitting these places so hard?
David Jassy: I think prison reform is one thing that really has to happen. Everybody’s worrying about COVID-19 but imagine being in a prison cell where you can’t do anything or get adequate health care. You can’t protect yourself. I didn’t have a door on my cell, just bars. When they were saying that it was airborne, we panicked. I mean, there’s so many different diseases and viruses that you get exposed to just being in prison. But just imagine what that’s like. Some guys are in there doing a sentence for a few years, but if they die from COVID-19 because they don’t have adequate care, then that’s a death sentence.
I think it needs to be immediate releases of a lot of people that are actually facing very horrible conditions right now. I know just the few days that I had when this broke out, was a nightmare. How do you explain that feeling of sitting or lying in your cell knowing there’s nothing you can do or no way to get out? I love what Reform did. I love what Meek Mill and JAY-Z did. If we could have more celebrities do that and join organizations like #cut50, Reform and all these great organizations, something can be done. No matter what act they committed they are humans, and they don’t deserve to die in prison like that.