EnTyce trades bars for bars
The Sacramento rapper was supposed to die in prison. Instead, he wrote 100 songs that set him free
Stalking the shadow-inked stage of Blue Lamp, Tyce Jackson pins the microphone to his mouth like an upturned bottle. Outfitted in a basic black T-shirt and gray jeans, the 34-year-old is a decade older than the other rappers in his midst.
Thundering through “All on the Line,” an Eminem-style manifesto, he sketches out the highlights of a hard-knock life: A murdered father, a gang-plagued youth and an adulthood nearly lost to prison. Jabbing at his chest, Jackson performs with the urgency of someone making up for lost time.
That's because he is.
Jackson was supposed to die behind bars. At least, that's what the Tennessee courts decided for him when he was 16 and running with the Vice Lords, a notorious gang that originated in Chicago.
Tried as an adult, Jackson was sentenced to multiple lifetimes behind bars. He barely escaped that fate, only to get locked up again a couple of years later in Sacramento.
Released in February, Jackson adopted “EnTyce” as his stage moniker and is now on something of a redemption tour. He's hitting up open-mics and releasing his music for free. In the long term, he hopes to develop the upstart label he created with friend Robert Powers into a philanthropic power.
“As soon as I went into prison, it was understood that I'm not here to gangbang, I'm not here to sell dope. I'm here to learn whatever lessons there are to be learned and to come out with more than I came in with,” Jackson explained during a recent interview. “And I just knew that I wasn't going to come out without a plan.”
Jackson is now putting that plan into play, but will anyone listen? After all, Sacramento is glutted with aspiring emcees. What makes EnTyce special?
To Powers, it's the man's “mathematically calculated raps”—and his humanity. “Nobody would ever guess he has spent as much time behind bars as he has,” Powers wrote in an email. He added: “This is really his story to tell.”
His face busted and bloodied by the dashboard of a stolen car, Jackson finally saw the lights—they were coming from the cops.
By the time Jackson was arrested in that lot behind the projects of Montgomery County, Tenn., he had already experienced some painful milestones.
At age 9, Jackson lost his father, a heroin addict, to a drug deal gone wrong. The homicide was never solved. After spending three years in Germany with his remarried mother and her Army-enlisted husband, Jackson and the family resettled in Clarksville, Tenn., where the 15-year-old’s rebellious behavior intensified.
“I was getting more angry,” Jackson admitted. “I was definitely getting way more into the streets. I was way disrespectful to my mom.”
At her wit’s end, Jackson’s mother threatened to surrender her parental rights. A printed-up contract with Tennessee’s Juvenile Justice division hung from the fridge, to no avail. Jackson skipped school and sold dope. Soon he graduated from boosting unattended cars to jacking occupied ones at gunpoint. One afternoon in October 1997, Jackson, his younger brother and a friend brought a new recruit to an area behind some low-income apartments where they had stashed three stolen cars.
The cars would be scurried to out-of-state chop shops and sold for parts. Personal items, like cash and jewelry, were divvied up and taxed by the gang’s shot-callers.
“We had to get the money, more money, very quickly,” Jackson said of the pressure coming from higher-ups. “It was definitely some debts that needed to be paid.”
The teens had barely started the cars when authorities revealed their presence. Sheriff’s department buses swarmed the lot, trained rifles in each window. A helicopter stormed overhead.
Jackson didn’t notice right away. He was concentrating on the joint in his fingers when his brother stutter-stepped the pedals, jamming Jackson’s head into the dash. When he looked up, he realized it was over.
The ensuing trial lasted about a year-and-a-half, with the boys spending most of that time in the isolation ward of Montgomery County’s adult jail. It’s where mentally incompetent defendants and inmates on suicide watch are housed, but the county had no other option then for minors tried as adults.
At trial, a jury convicted Jackson and two others on multiple felony counts of kidnapping, carjacking, robbery and aggravated assault—and sentenced them each to 100-plus years in prison. The fourth boy, the new guy, swapped his testimony for immunity.
From inside the juvenile dorm at Northwest Correctional Complex, Jackson looked out on the yard where the men recreated. Two weeks shy of his 18th birthday, he knew he would soon join them.
Jackson spent the better part of nine years in prison. He only got out early because the group’s fourth accomplice, the one who testified against them at trial, perjured himself on the stand, and because investigators didn’t properly obtain parental consent before interviewing the minors.
In 2006, Jackson relocated to Sacramento, near his mother and siblings. He got himself a minimum-wage job, a wife, a son and started making some headway with his music, freestyling songs to people inside Arden Fair mall.
But in 2010, neighbors spotted a large bruise on his wife and called the cops. He was initially charged with a misdemeanor count of domestic violence. But then, he says, the local district attorney’s office got a look at his rap sheet.
Once again, he faced life in a prison cell.
“I didn’t want that on my head,” he said. “So I took the better of the devils.”
Jackson accepted a deal for six years. Today, he says the episode taught him he still had a lot to learn about interpersonal relationships, especially with women. “That was probably a greater epiphany than when I was in prison in Tennessee,” he said.
While inside, Jackson got his hands on a contraband cellphone. Besides using it to contact his son, Jackson searched YouTube for production beats. He forwarded the ones he liked to Powers and penned lyrics to go along with them. He wrote about his dad’s travails and his own knuckleheaded youth. Suddenly, the advice his grandfather gave him a decade earlier resonated, and escaped into a song, titled “Date with Destiny”:
“Seen a lot of crazy stuff, it broke me but it provoked me to dream.
That’s when my g-pops approached me with a karaoke machine
and said, ’Life is life and there’s things in life you don’t like about it.
But rather than gripe about it, grab a pen and write about it.
Who knows? You may just inspire someone whose life is shrouded in darkness
to finally shine and make something bright about it.’”
Jackson set himself a mission to write 100 tracks before his release, which sped toward him because of good behavior credits and overcrowding reforms. On the day he got out, a little more than four years into his sentence, he had surpassed his goal.
Powers picked him up outside of the high-walled Tracy facility. The two, who had met while working in fast food, drove straight to a recording studio in Sacramento, where they laid down 87 “scratch tracks” in three days. They’re song sketches, Powers explained, “but still, 87.”
Because Jackson doesn’t own the beats he sampled for his songs, he’s dedicating them to mixtapes and giving them away gratis. After he’s burned through his catalog, he wants to do a proper album, and eventually share other people’s stories.
“This is how I look at it: I’ve done a lot of wrong in my life,” he said. “Whenever there’s an opportunity to do some good, and throw some karma out there, I’ll be first in line for it. Because I’m trying to balance it out before the day, you know?”
For now, he’s making the rounds. In July, he gigged a feature slot at Pine Cove Tavern alongside Andru Defeye, who describes him as “hungry.” This past Tuesday, he returned to Blue Lamp, his current home court.
Onstage, Jackson follows the words spilling from his mouth, like he’s knitting together his own atonement.
Some in the scant crowd nod their heads. They don’t know him yet, but they’re starting to feel this EnTyce.