A grainy YouTube video shows a cell in Salinas Valley State Prison in Monterey County. Maurice League, a hardened street rapper with braided hair and tattoos covering much of his body, sits on the bottom bunk, no mattress.
League, aka Lil Spank Booty, tiredly wipes his face and shakes his head. In his right hand is a metal utensil, in his left a red plastic cup. He puts his hands down to the hard bed surface to bang out a beat, using the utensil as a cymbal, the cup as a snare and his left palm as a kick. Then, he spits a heartbreaking verse about the trials of incarceration. Abandonment from loved ones. “Zombied-out” inmates on prescription drugs. Abusive corrections officers. Suicide.
An Emerald Hills Blood from San Diego, League weaves tales of crime and poverty with sharp insight, vivid detail and empathy for those who've been cast farthest away. He records most of his music using cell phones, with many of his latest verses posted to YouTube.
“I just want to be a beacon to say… don't forget about us up in here,” League tells CityBeat, speaking via phone from his prison cell. “We're still people, and we still deserve a chance.”
Now, he's readying his debut album, a collaboration with Bay Area producer DJ Fresh, whose credits run the gamut from Too $hort to Living Legends. Due in March, the album is called Concrete Conspiracy, reflecting different aspects of League's life.
“All those things are concrete—from the streets that we grew up on and bang, to the concrete of the environment that we grew up in the projects, to the concrete of these penitentiaries,” League explains. “And by me recording in prison [by phone] and these phones aren't legal—all of that is a conspiracy. So it's a solid, unbreakable, concrete plan to get the message out to the people.”
League, 35, grew up in low-income housing with his mother in National City and spent weekends with his grandma in Southeast San Diego. He was surrounded by many of the city's first rappers, including street legends Gangsta ern and Black Mikey.
“I had always been rapping, dating back to an old group out of San Diego called Prhyme Suspect that was really hot in the early '90s,” League says. “I was always up under their tutelage from a young age.”
Unfortunately, the negative influence of the streets drowned out the music.
In 1994, League was arrested for robbing a Burger King in Lemon Grove. According to court records, he was convicted of robbery with the use of a firearm and sentenced to eight years in prison. During that term, he accumulated four more years for possessing a handmade knife.
Months after his release in July 2005, League was arrested again for robbing an Old Navy in Mira Mesa and was found guilty of second-degree robbery and assault with a semi-automatic firearm, along with violation of probation. Though he says he's innocent, he was sentenced to 37 years in prison in January 2007. He's trying to appeal the conviction. To date, he's spent more than half of his life incarcerated.
“I'll be 63 years old [when released] if we let them tell it. But we ain't accepting that,” he says. “We're not giving up because we know that this conviction is unlawful.”
He hasn't given up on his music, either. In 2006, after League created buzz by distributing copies of his eight-song EP locally, San Diego rapper Mitchy Slick—League's childhood friend—took him under his wing and connected him with DJ Fresh. League had heard in prison about Mitchy's success; Mitchy had heard about League, too.
“He's an incredible MC,” Mitchy tells CityBeat. “He didn't know it, but I was already impressed.”
Likely influenced by his newfound Rastafarian spirituality and his study of the prison-industrial complex, League's music connects with a greater struggle against a broken system. On an early version of the song “Loot Hungry,” he rhymes:
“The dough is my goal / I can't see the double-whammy: being broke and on parole / Not to mention my mama mortgage got her hella pinching pennies / She been working for it legally ever since her twenties / Fuck a burger job at Wendy's or a busboy at Denny's.”
League says he now stays in 22-hour lockdown in his cell daily. He spends much of his time exercising, practicing his faith, reading (a favorite is Angela Davis, the prisoners'-rights advocate) and writing short stories. He hopes to start a program to steer at-risk youth away from the kinds of mistakes that landed him in prison.
And he records music. Except for two songs, all of League's verses on his forthcoming album were recorded from prison—his engineer, Steve Vicious, “was really able to work the vocals to make them sound crystal clear,” he says. He also sends album promotion by phone.
“These phones make a lot of things possible,” he says.
Listen to Lil Spank Booty at reverbnation.com/lilspankbooty and youtube.com/user/wrongkind619.