Johnny Cash, John Lee Hooker and BB King all recorded live albums in prison.
In those cases the inmates were the audience, but now a record label has been set up to give a voice to jailhouse Scots. Its name? Criminal Records.
For the last decade Jill Brown has been conducting music workshops in HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow. These experiences in Scotland’s biggest prison have inspired her to start a label aimed at those doing time.
“My goal is to give people a voice and it’s simply that,” says Brown, a singer who also records her own music. “It’s to give people a voice that feel they are denied that, and it’s to plant a seed of hope to let them see that their lives can be better and they can give back to society.”
‘Another shot at life’
The plan is for the label to start working with ex-offenders once they are released from prison. But the eventual goal is to record and release records with those who are still inside.
“I think the reaction will be mixed,” admits Brown. “We wouldn’t work with anyone who is still considered to be a danger to society. And obviously we do have to be sensitive in terms of there being victims.”
Brown believes music can be a real, positive force. “I do think that you can’t lock people up and expect them to come out changed, if you haven’t positively contributed to their lives while they are in there,” she says. “Personally I think it is refreshing when someone is given another chance and another shot at life.”
From conducting a songwriting workshop in Barlinnie just before lockdown, Brown discovered it is hip-hop to which the majority of prisoners are drawn.
On that occasion, four prisoners worked on raps and performed them in a recreation room to an audience of one – a prison guard. Ryan, who is in his early 30s, delivered his rhymes with great confidence. He rapped:
“It’s time to drop that gun / Time to drop that knife / Time to take a step back and start valuing life.”
Afterwards he explained what role music has played during his incarceration, saying: “It’s everything really. It gives me something positive to do every day. When I’m in my cell it gives me something to look forward to – hopefully using it to keep me out of the jail when I’m outside.”
Fellow prisoner Danny concurs. “The workshop gets me out of my cell and helps me with my mental health. Because being behind those doors for 23 hours a day is not good for anyone’s mental health, is it?”
Prison’s got talent
Brown has enlisted heavyweight help from the US to get things going. Eric McLellan spent a decade at Sire Records, signing new acts for the label that was once the home of Talking Heads, The Ramones and Madonna. Now he’ll be trying to spot Scottish prisoners with the potential to become pop stars.
“There are 15 prisons in Scotland so I would imagine there’s going to be a wealth of talent,” said McLellan, who worked on the recent Top 30 debut album by British indie band The Lottery Winners.
“I think this could be a way to document what is happening today. The younger prisoners are likely going to gravitate towards hip-hop and grime. I’m really just searching for different perspectives like self-reflection, remorse, guilt, sorrow. All of that makes for interesting subject matter.”
McLellan was also inspired by the example of the late US rapper Tupac Shakur.
“I started thinking about some of the rap stuff in the US,” he adds. “Tupac, when he was signed by Death Row and Suge Knight, he was in jail. They posted his bail and I think the next day, when he got out of prison, he recorded All Eyez on Me which is a diamond-selling record.
“I would imagine he wrote a majority of those songs in prison. So if there was a possibility a way to record artists in prison it could be really cool.”
Criminal Records will act as a social enterprise, generating income through training. Brown hopes to raise money with her own track Promised Land, which is available on Bandcamp.
The priority is for her and McLellan is to make their first signing.
Despite Scotland not being famous for its hip-hop, Mercury Prize-winners Young Fathers excepted, McLellan believes the label’s first act will almost certainly be a rapper.
“It’s about giving people a voice to spread positivity,” he says. “That’s really the goal.”
That was certainly the message of inmate Ryan’s rap lyrics, back in the Barlinnie;
“Trying to educate the troops, with a few home truths / Reaching out to the youth, when I step in the booth.
“Hear the boy’s living proof, spitting facts on tracks / Bad boy gone good, putting Glasgow on the map.”
Criminal Records hopes to do the same.