In the cab on the way to Newark Airport, John Forté had a feeling something was wrong. The rapper had been hanging out in his Nolita apartment when he got a call. It was the pair of girls he says he’d enlisted to fly back from Houston, Texas, with two bags of drug money. They were scared, they said, and wanted him to come to the airport, which he did. Forté grabbed the bags, and as he was lifting them into the trunk of a cab, twenty or so cops, pistols drawn, came out of nowhere. Moments later, Forté found himself in the back of a police car, handcuffed. It was only later that he learned what had happened. The girls had gotten busted in Houston and given up his name. The phone call was a setup. And it turned out the bags were filled with roughly $1.5 million worth of liquid cocaine.
Nine years later, Forté sits on a couch inside a Flatiron recording studio, his waist-length dreads swirled around his head like a turban. He’s talking about his new, self-released EP, StyleFREE (now on iTunes; out on CD in September). “The timing was really important,” says the 34-year-old musician. “I wanted to get something out on the anniversary of my arrest. It was coming full circle. The metaphor is there, you know?” Today he’s a free man, having served just over half of a fourteen-year sentence.
Forté is a warm, open guy with an easy laugh. Luck, unshakable tenacity, and an extraordinary ability to connect with powerful people have been the constant threads of his life. He grew up in Brownsville, one of Brooklyn’s roughest neighborhoods, where it was not uncommon to go to sleep hearing gunfire. “Shot after shot after shot,” he says. Forté was smart and a little different, studying classical violin, coming under the spell of Vivaldi. A guidance counselor noticed and helped him score a highly coveted spot at Phillips Exeter Academy. “It was definitely culture shock,” he says. But he thrived. He built up a circle of hip-hop-obsessed friends, started writing his own music, and when he graduated he moved to Manhattan, briefly living with old friend Talib Kweli, soon to be a big-deal rapper himself. He also met and grew close to Ben Taylor, son of Carly Simon and James Taylor.
The first time Ben took him to meet Simon, there was an instant connection. “Carly is a mentor to me, a guide, absolutely my spiritual godmother,” Forté says. “You meet people sometimes, and beyond logic and reason, there’s this synergy where everything clicks.” The two spent a lot of time together in the late nineties; he stayed at her place on Martha’s Vineyard, where they shared and worked on music. In the city, he was hanging out with the Fugees. He’d met Lauryn Hill at a 1995 gig, and they hit it off. When the Fugees started work on their groundbreaking The Score, Hill invited Forté to the studio. He ended up co-writing and co-producing two songs, touring with the band, and signing with the Fugees’ Refugee Camp label. He was 23, and his career was taking off.
But Forté’s 1998 solo debut, Poly Sci—a gritty, big-budget rap album with guest spots from DMX and Fat Joe—flopped. “That’s a pill I had to swallow,” he says. “I had gotten arrogant. I was reckless with money, I was paranoid, and I had lots of people around who could care less about me.” He blew cash on expensive jewelry and extravagant trips, waking up on Monday and flying to Paris that afternoon, just for the hell of it. Then the label dropped him. Game over. “John had a way of living beyond his means, especially when the record deal fell through,” Taylor says. “He was hurting for dough.” Too proud to ask for help, Forté started working for a drug-dealer acquaintance. He won’t say exactly what he did, but he implies it wasn’t handling drugs. In any case, it only lasted a few months: The Newark bust ended that.
His first call after the arrest was to Simon. She immediately leaped to his defense, putting up a large chunk of his bail money. “She was as scared and loving as any mom would be,” Forté says. “She never wavered. Not one day.” The trial took place in Houston in September 2001. He argued that he hadn’t known about the coke, that the bags were supposed to be filled with cash. The jury didn’t buy it, and Forté ended up with a 168-month sentence.
In jail, he was a model prisoner, tutoring inmates, studying chess, and teaching himself guitar. In 2002, he released the well-received I, John, an album he’d recorded while awaiting trial. Meanwhile, Simon was spearheading an intense effort to help. “I went to all of my well-known, well-heeled friends—Kennedy, Kerry, the Clintons,” she says. “Nobody did a thing.” Finally, Simon found an unlikely ally: Utah Republican Orrin Hatch. The senator is a songwriter, and Simon gave him a copy of I, John and a letter from Forté. “Orrin thought he was a genius,” says Simon. “He believed John had gotten too long of a sentence.” Even so, the appeals process ran its course, and eventually there was just one shot left: a presidential commutation. From George W. Bush. Good luck. “It was the tiniest, tiniest, tiniest sliver of hope,” Forté says.
On November 24, 2008, Forté was sitting on his bunk, catching up on some reading, when a friend mentioned hearing about pardons and commutations on CNN. Forté’s lawyer confirmed that his name was on the list. To this day, Forté won’t speculate about why Bush chose him. “I’m grateful and humbled. Wholly appreciative,” he says. “But I don’t question it.”
The day after his release, Forté was in the studio with Kweli. They cranked out “Homecoming,” a no-frills hip-hop track based on the Kanye West song, which they made available for free online. Forté no longer craves mainstream stardom—which is probably out of reach at this point anyway. “Kids who are tastemakers don’t know who he is,” says Reggie Hawkins, who programs Sirius XM Radio’s Hip-Hop Nation. “He’s like a brand-new artist. In the current Drake, Lil Wayne environment, that’s a very tough sell.” So Forté’s branching out, writing a memoir for Simon & Schuster (coincidentally, Simon’s father’s publishing house), getting involved with In Arms Reach, a charity for kids whose parents are incarcerated. But music is still the focus. Forté has recorded over 60 songs since prison, and some will appear on a full-length album he’s planning to call Water, Light, Sound. “The title is a metaphor for birth,” he says. “Which is what I feel like I go through every day.”