Kanye West and Drake were sworn enemies. Then J. Prince stepped in
In November, the Houston rap impresario J. Prince rushed over to an unexpected meeting in his city’s austere and black-paneled Rothko chapel. Inside, the tempestuous rapper Ye (neé Kanye West) was ready to find some peace.
As the two talked, the Rap-A-Lot Records founder made his case for Ye to put aside a decade of back-and-forth sniping that embittered his relationship with fellow superstar Drake.
Prince and his son, Jas, were instrumental in discovering Drake and steering his early career, and Drake remained “like one of my sons, and that’s how he looks at me,” the 57-year-old Prince said. He knew Drake and Ye shared a goal of getting one man — the 71-year-old former Gangster Disciples leader Larry Hoover — out of his lifetime sentence in federal prison, where he is largely kept in solitary confinement.
Maybe the three could hash this out if it helped Hoover get free.
“I’m making this ... to address the ongoing back and forth between myself and Drake,” Ye says in a video from the chapel, flanked by Prince. “Both me and Drake have taken shots at each other, and it’s time to put it to rest.”
“I didn’t plan on being there at all,” Prince said of the meeting with Ye, which he recalled two days before the Thursday “Free Larry Hoover” concert at the L.A. Coliseum, where the two artists will perform, part Monsters-of-Hip-Hop reconciliation and part prison-reform fundraiser. “But I wasn’t gonna walk away from an invitation at a place of that magnitude. We had a real enlightened conversation. Ye told me, ‘I never had someone speak to me like this, these words of truth and realness.’ I could read his heart, and that’s hard to run from.”
As Houston continues to reel from the Astroworld crowd-crush tragedy — where Drake performed as Travis Scott’s guest and is named in several lawsuits — Prince is one of the few figures whom the city’s storied rap scene, one that influenced Drake and Ye alike, trusts implicitly.
As Rap-A-Lot’s founder in the mid-'80s, James Smith’s vision for slow-rolling Southern rap and unflinching storytelling gave the world Geto Boys and UGK, and influenced acts as big as hometown hero Beyoncé. His decades of label experience and empathetic, cooling personality lends him gravitas in hip-hop like few others.
“You can call him the full foundation of hip-hop in Houston,” said Bun B, the rapper and UGK member who signed to Rap-A-Lot in the mid-2000s. “He’s really good at managing egos, managing men and keeping them focused and holding them accountable. He is so calming — people go to him with things that may compromise them professionally, that could ruin them financially. There is nothing that you can go to him about that he wouldn’t consider helping you with.”
Saweetie is up for two Grammy Awards, including best new artist. Still, she says, “I feel like I’m constantly fighting for my value, and for respect.”
Bringing Drake and Ye together was no small achievement. (Reps for both Ye and Drake declined to comment for this article.) But Prince has a bigger cause in mind.
“This system for sentencing, this prison system rooted in racism, it’s time for change,” he said. “It’s not just to shine a light on Larry Hoover, but other victims of this system. We feel strongly that it’s time for redemption.”
Hoover’s legend and criminal case has long captivated hip-hop. In the ‘70s, he rose to lead Chicago’s Gangster Disciples, a street gang that ruled the South Side drug market and aspired to legitimate political influence, until his conviction for ordering a rival dealer’s murder in 1973, for which he was sentenced to more than 150 years in state prison. He was later convicted on federal drug-related charges from an investigation within prison, and simultaneously sentenced to life.
Hoover was transferred to a federal supermax prison in Colorado, where he’s held in near-total isolation. But his mythos still looms large in hip-hop: Hoover’s prison phone calls are a centerpiece of Geto Boys’ 1996 album “The Resurrection,” and Ye sampled his son Larry Hoover Jr.’s pleas for redemption on his new album “Donda.”
Ye, who grew up in Chicago, was long sympathetic to Hoover’s story. In 2018, Ye’s and his now-estranged wife Kim Kardashian West lobbied then-President Trump to push for leniency toward Hoover through the First Step Act, which allowed for shortened federal minimum prison sentences and curbed some abusive practices.
This year, a federal judge denied Hoover resentencing under the program. But for many in the hip-hop world, Hoover has become a broader symbol of draconian sentencing deployed without a benefit to society, and how a troubled past can stir unwarranted fears of criminality in the present.
Prince argues that, given Hoover’s advanced age, his current punishment is too harsh for crimes committed decades ago.
“I don’t know if you can imagine being alone in a 6-by-6 foot cell with a concrete bed for 23 hours a day. It’s inhumane,” he said.
Ye and Drake’s L.A. concert offers a unique platform to push for resentencing Hoover. And maybe no one but Prince could have talked them into it.
“He’s very religious, very principled, with a high set of morals,” Bun B said. “You do not do the frivolous s— you did before, because he has such a strong reputation that you don’t want to compromise. You don’t want your personal decisions to reflect badly on him.”
When Prince got on the plane to meet the two rap stars at Drake’s Toronto mansion in mid-November, after the Houston meeting with Ye, he knew what he was in for. The pair had bickered over failed collaborations, lyrical potshots and Kardashian familial drama for a decade.
“This wasn’t an easy situation,” Prince said, laughing. “They didn’t feel well about each other, so it had to be someone they mutually respected, who spoke a language that pierced their hearts. All the way on the flight to Toronto, I understood that when we got in that room, it was going to be a heated discussion. But both of them were able to sit at a table as men and listen to one another.
“My night ended up with some good red wine. I was glad to make it to the bed,” Prince joked.
The three then posed for a photo outside of Drake’s front door. “A bigger picture of doing this for the culture,” Prince told The Times. “All of that was important to them, to be an example and come together in the name of peace.”
R&B sensation H.E.R. is nominated for eight Grammy Awards at January’s ceremony, including album and song of the year.
The stadium show, which will stream live on Amazon Music and in Imax theaters, will raise money for justice-reform advocacy groups such as Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change, Hustle 2.0, and Uptown People’s Law Center.
Prince’s healing mission will be needed in his hometown for years to come as well. Locals are searching for accountability for the Astroworld tragedy that killed 10 and injured dozens at Houston’s NRG Park.
Prince said he has spoken with Drake, who was onstage during Travis Scott’s performance, about what happened that night.
“Drake was heartbroken where all of this was concerned, and I’m sure Travis was too.” Prince said. “In Houston, we’ve been battle-tested with tragedies, and I don’t feel there’s anything we can’t get through, but I know there’s a lot of people still healing from this.”
“We took a big hit with Astroworld, that hit us in the gut,” Bun B said. “We’re going to live with this for a while, and what J. Prince can do is keep us encouraged.”
With Thursday’s show, Prince hopes that fans who come to witness rap history will walk away with a new perspective and urgency about justice reform — both for Hoover, and for everyone who doesn’t have rap titans advocating for them.
“I hope kids leave this show and speak on behalf of Larry Hoover,” Prince said. “We’re dealing with judges, prosecutors, these Christians who practice none of the Bible, so hopefully their kids will say, ‘Dad, look how they’re doing Larry Hoover.’”
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.