Make a gangsta-rap album, go to jail.
That's the situation possibly facing Shawn Thomas, a Sacramento rapper whose new album could send him back to prison if its "gangsta rap" content is judged in violation of his parole.
If Thomas is ordered back to prison, the case could prove a test of 1st Amendment rights and the limits of the penal system's authority, legal experts say.
The rapper, who served 15 months in Soledad Prison for illegal use of a firearm, was paroled last summer on the condition that he not record music that "promotes gang violence [or] the gang lifestyle" or is "anti-law enforcement."
The new album, which The Times has heard prior to its scheduled March 10 release, is titled "Til My Casket Drops" and is full of graphic, weapons-loaded accounts of gang adventures. It often presents a highly negative view of law enforcement and the judicial system.
In one song, "Deadly Game," Thomas, who records under the name C-BO, puts himself in the position of a young man with two legal strikes against him, a routine criminal turned vicious when confronted with a potential "third strike" arrest.
You better swing, batter, batter swing
'Cause once you get your third felony, yeah 50 years you gotta bring
It's a deadly game of baseball
So when they try to pull you over, shoot 'em in the face, ya'll.
"The parole agent will have to take a look at that album and make a decision," says Henry J. Peralta, regional parole administrator for the California Department of Corrections area that includes Sacramento. "If there's enough to make us feel there is a problem, he may be subject to revocation of his parole."
Peralta himself last summer wrote the denial of Thomas' second appeal for the condition to be removed.
Several prominent attorneys who deal regularly with parole issues, though, say the order steps far beyond the authority of parole conditions. It's common for parole orders to place restrictions on associations and activities, but not to dictate content restrictions of speech and art.
"This is outrageous," says Marcia Morrissey, a Los Angeles attorney and president of the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice. Morrissey represented rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg when he was acquitted of first- and second-degree murder charges in 1996, though she is not involved with C-BO.
"It really is such a vague condition as to be unenforceable," she says. "[The idea] is to try to impose conditions that will prevent people on parole from re-offending, both for their sake and the community's. But muzzling this young man . . . saying he can't talk about certain subjects doesn't help him avoid crime."
Even parole administrator Peralta had never before heard of such conditions being imposed. But he believes they are proper in this case.
"We think it's appropriate," he says. "Otherwise we wouldn't have put it on there."
Thomas, an award-winning rapper who has been making records since 1992, admits to being a former gang member, but says that he no longer is involved in such activities. In an appeal last summer of his parole restrictions, he wrote, "Gang lifestyle exists with or without me or my music. To acknowledge it as a part of our society is not necessarily to promote the lifestyle. I no longer live it, but it is a realistic part of my music and means to earn a living."
In his denial, Peralta responded, "As a convicted felon on parole, it is in the best interest of the public that you not engage in behavior that promotes gang violence, the gang lifestyle or criminal behavior of violence against law enforcement. A review of your lyrics . . . [made] prior to your commitment to prison [does] reflect the promotion of such behavior."
Thomas asks that parole officials pay attention to his actions, not his art, which he insists merely mixes realistic depictions of urban tensions and fictionalized tales comparable to contemporary gangster movies.
"I don't see how they can take my freedom of speech," he says in a soft-spoken manner that contrasts his hard-hitting rapping style. "If I lived that lifestyle, that would be something [that could be a problem]. But I don't live that lifestyle anymore."
Thomas, who is married with a child and another on the way, said that when he signed the parole condition he and his attorneys believed the order would ultimately be overturned via appeal. But each of his three allowed appeals within the parole system has been denied, the final one just last week.
Meanwhile, Thomas' album will be released by Sacramento-based Awol Records, which is distributed by the national Noo Trybe company. Calls to Awol were not returned.
Toning down his lyrics, Thomas says, was not a viable option. A softer approach would be career suicide in a field where "street" authenticity is paramount, he says.
The rapper, who says that he's earned an average of $84,000 a year from rapping since he made his first record in 1992, stresses that he's not looking to be a hero or martyr in a test of free speech rights. In fact, he said he was reluctant to speak about his case, fearing the comments might draw extra attention and the wrath of the parole board.
The next step, should the album be deemed in violation of his parole, is to take the case to court. His conviction stemmed from a fatality that occurred in a Sacramento park in 1996 after Thomas fired shots in the air, which he says were intended to help break up a gang flare-up.
"We know we can beat it in a higher court," says Thomas' manager, Isaac Palmer. "But the situation is that while we're doing that, it's still a parole issue, and they [the parole board] can call the shots."