Making music in prison is already difficult enough, and recording music is that much more difficult. 

A handful of carceral institutions have dedicated recording studios, but these are few and far between. Without even consistent access to instruments, it's difficult—and yet, it happens. A small network of ingenious musicians are working around prison restrictions against making music, using phones and JPAY tracks to mix hip-hop.

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Deon Thomas, who performs under the name Young Tali, has been putting out tracks since he was in junior high school. 

"I started really taking rap serious around the age of 14," Thomas said, speaking over the phone about his experience as a young rapper growing up in Portsmouth, Virginia. For Thomas, his first musical influence was Biggie Smalls. Music was an outlet that could help process his thoughts and feelings about his life.

"I think the first time I actually recorded a song was between my eighth grade and freshman year of high school… One of my first songs, it was called 'Beat Town Summer.' I was part of a group, there was probably six or seven of us. We did a couple of different mixtapes, between 10 to 12 different CDs over a two-year period."

Even as a teenager selling CDs in the cafeteria to other students, Thomas knew he wanted to try and make a living as a musician. Now, at 33 years old, he continues to make music from a prison cell. 

All told, he thinks he spent about $300 to produce his album from the inside.

His music has a ghostliness to it. On tracks like "Life Doing Life," he sounds far away from the listener as he raps about the experience of a life sentence and memories of life outside. "Burning For Justice" begins with a sample from a speech by Malcolm X on police brutality before moving through the various victims of white supremacist violence. The music is his voice against a beat and little else. 

Thomas broke down his process step-by-step for making a track:

1: "I go on JPAY [a messaging platform for incarcerated people that also comes with music, including downloads for songs at $1.49 a song] and look for instrumentals. I find different 30-second-long samples, and if I like the beat, I purchase it. With me, it's all about vibes and energy and after three to four seconds of listening to a beat, I'll have a concept immediately based on the instruments, melody, pace, or sample."

2: "If I buy an instrumental today, and I sit down and start writing today, I could have the song finished in two or three days—a week tops as far as the writing goes. The beat is as much as 50 percent of the song, so it's very important to me to be in unison with its vibes and energy to deliver a sound that'll resonate with my listeners."

3: "After that, it's a matter of getting in contact with the sound engineer to schedule a studio session. I call my vocal engineer, rap my section, and have it recorded over the phone. He then overdubs the instrumental sections where I want him to and does the necessary editing."

When he produced his first album on the inside, Presidential Felon, Thomas had to pay for everything himself—and find workarounds for a process that's only streamlined for free people. Hiring the audio engineer costs $55 an hour. Recording, editing, and putting the album together took about five hours.

The rest of the production was cheap: a high school friend made the cover, and family and friends helped spread the word about the album's release on JPAY. Thomas used 10 different beats and samples and had to pay $14.90 to download them. All told, he thinks he spent about $300 to produce his album from the inside.

Being able to actually listen to songs made it possible for him to make his own because he could find music to sample. "I would just sit in my cell and write my thoughts and things of that nature, but as far as constructing songs and trying to get them on JPAY, that came about around 2016." 

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He continued: "JPAY is like a small entity in the music world: It's all about finding a distribution company that will deal with you. You have to find a music distributor who also has some kind of contract with JPAY. Once I found Tunecore [after a friend on the outside Googled around for information], I paid JPAY a flat fee, then they send it everywhere. I get a percentage of every sale that comes back."

JPAY takes in a significant profit—between 44 and 49 percent—off of the music that's sold. Other music distributors take 10 to 20 percent of the royalties, plus a flat fee.

 In 2021, Thomas released Presidential Felon. He intended the album for people who are incarcerated, "a soundtrack for our lives," as Thomas put it. "Once the album was released I felt a sense of accomplishment and pride because so much work was put into it and the overall process was over three years from starting the writing process unto the release."

Young Tali's album Presidential Felon. Producing music from prison.

Thomas explained what the reaction from his listeners has been like.

"Probably 90 to 95 percent of rappers talk about guns, cars, money, fame, and things consisting of the outside world, and a lot of incarcerated beings are unable to presently relate due to our current circumstances… I'm a young African American raised in an impoverished city, and an older white guy raised in rural Southwest Virginia, where Confederate beliefs still exist, approached me and said he plays my album every morning when he wakes up and gets his self together for the day. He has rebel flags tattooed all over his body and honestly probably wouldn't have helped me fix a flat tire in society, but nonetheless, he felt and related to music because it's describing 'our' day-to-day lives in here and a lot of people hadn't (haven't) heard songs with lyrics, terminology, and concepts like I used… I'm most proud of that."

Thomas' music has been a way to connect to fellow incarcerated musicians. He knows of at least one other person in Virginia using the same method to record his tracks. He's also recently made contact with somebody incarcerated in Ohio, and they're starting to talk about how they might record an album together. 

Thomas hopes his music helps make sense of life in prison for his listeners on the outside.

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"I rap about my life and my personal experience, and probably the average experience of the person that's incarcerated. It's a stereotype of incarceration that it's just violence and fights and riots—that's usually the first thing that comes to their minds. It's actually way more complex than that… You got gangbangers, you got people who are like neighborhood watch, you have the vicious, you have athletes, you have everything that society consists of because everybody here comes from society. We become our own community, we have our own currency…"

Sounds like the makings of a song.

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Zeb Larson is a historian and writer currently based in Columbus, OH. His research deals with the anti-apartheid movement in the United States. For somebody who has never lived in the South, he's obsessed with its cuisine, music, history, and culture.