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Hip Hop Is My Life

I spit bars on Death Row to preserve the legacy of our people, what’s been done to us, and how we’ve fought back.


You can call me Alim. My given name is Michael Jerome Braxton, and growing up, my family and friends called me Jerome, or Rome for short. The North Carolina Department of Correction refers to me as #0043529, my offender number. A lot of people on Death Row call me Big Bank or just Bank. My dad calls me Michael because his name is also Jerome. My wife, Jeannie, calls me Michael because she swears this is how I introduced myself when we first met in 1991. My rap name is Rrome Alone. I spell Rrome with a double R because I represent Ruff Raleigh, North Carolina. “Alone” is a nod to my many years of solitude and solitary confinement. After I accepted Islam, I took the name Alim, so nowadays, I always introduce myself as Alim. But I’m all of the above. I wear many hats.

I am a prisoner, a writer, and a rapper on North Carolina’s Death Row. I’ve been incarcerated since 1993, when I was nineteen years old, and rap has been and continues to be my vehicle for recording my thoughts, my feelings, and my experiences. Writing rhymes has always been a form of therapy for me. In prison, you are stripped of all your worldly possessions. Very little belongs to you. But my rhymes are mine, and I carry them with me. It’s my art that I can plaster on the walls of the shower just for my entertainment. I can spit—that’s what we call rapping—to someone or to no one. When the mood strikes and I want to write, it’s the greatest escape. The joy I feel after crafting a song, nothing can replace. Nobody else might like it. Hell, nobody else might even hear it, but it’s mine and it is dope. Besides, it’s one of the few things that I can do now that I used to do on the other side of the wall.

Hip hop is my life. KRS-One said: I am Hip Hop. I feel the same way because hip hop has shaped my life and marked so many of my memories. I remember breakdancing in 1983, when I was ten. Back then the illest breakdance songs were electronic songs like “Electric Kingdom” by Twilight 22, “Tour De France” by Kraftwerk, and “Beat Box” by Art of Noise. My mom knew I wanted to be a DJ and bought me a Welcome Back, Kotter turntable. It was shaped like a lunch box! She bought me that record player and Herbie Hancock’s album Future Shock, which had the song “Rockit,” with all the scratching. That was the first record I ever owned. The first actual rap album that I had was by The Fat Boys. They were my first favorite rappers, but I mainly liked Darren “The Human Beat Box” Robinson. A Fat Boys show was the first and only concert I’ve ever been to in my life.

I remember my first boombox, my first pair of suede Pumas with the fat laces, my bomber jacket, my parachute pants, my windbreaker, my Kangol, my gold cap for my tooth. I remember writing my first rap in ’86, my first battle in ’88. Hip hop is the way I talk, my slang, my posture, the way I think. So much of who I am is intertwined with the culture of hip hop. It’s in my mind, the thoughts that no one can hear.

I started rapping when I was thirteen. I was an eighth-grader at Carnage Middle School in Raleigh. It was my first year at Carnage, as my family had just moved, so I didn’t know anyone. I remember in the bathroom one day seeing this kid with a Jheri curl named Larry, and he just started rappin’. It was no more than four or six bars. I think he said, “My name is Larry Love / I’m fly like a dove . . .” After he spit his bars, I asked him what rap was that—I’d never heard it before. He told me that he’d made it up. That just blew my mind. For whatever reason, I thought that only professional rappers like the ones I heard on the radio could rap. I had never thought to even try. But that day I went home and wrote my very first rap—just a few bars—and I memorized it. When I got back to school, I spit it to Larry and a couple of other people in the bathroom and I remember the props everybody gave me. They said it was fresh, it was dope, it was ill.

On my fifteenth birthday, in 1988, I had a party at my house with about twenty friends. My man Pat Alston was deejaying. He had set up his system: two turntables and a mixer as well as his speakers. We were having a blast and then Pat plugged in his mic and started shouting me out and encouraging me to bust a rhyme. So I went up to the DJ table, got the mic, and Pat threw on the instrumental of a record that was hot at the time, Chubb Rock’s “Caught Up.” We were just having fun, and Pat recorded it. It was the first time I ever heard my voice recorded to music.

I got kicked out of school that year for calling in a bomb threat as a prank, and after that I dove headfirst into the street. It didn’t occur to me to pursue a career as a rapper. I would freestyle off the dome—what we call improvising—but I wasn’t putting anything on paper. It was just something I loved to do. One time, though, I heard that Prince Markie Dee from The Fat Boys was sponsoring a rap contest at a Raleigh club called Bentley’s. The deadline for entering had been weeks earlier, so I couldn’t compete. However, the DJ let me perform anyway. He played the instrumental to Run-DMC’s “It’s Like That” and I turnt it out! The crowd went wild. After I did my performance Prince Markie Dee shouted my name out in the club. That was one of my proudest moments.

I was just a teenager then. I’m fifty now, and I’ve spent most of my life in prison. Hip hop has been my constant companion all this time. Until we were issued electronic tablets in 2022, radio was my only access to music. On Death Row everyone is issued a small AM/FM radio with earphones, and for many years, the best way to hear hip hop was to tune in to WKNC 88.1 FM, a nearby radio station run by North Carolina State University. Every Saturday to Monday, starting around 6 or 7 p.m., they’d play hip hop late into the night. All the hip hop heads in here used to live for 88.1. Even after lock-in (at 10:45 p.m.), you’d hear people banging on the walls to get their neighbor’s attention. You’d hear shouts of “eighty-eight-one!” when a good song came on. We loved 88.1 because it was the underground. They played the stuff that we would never hear on commercial radio.

We’d be up till 2 a.m. listening to 88.1 and compare notes the next day.

“Yo yo! You hear that Mobb Deep joint?!”

“Hell yeah! Man, Prodigy killed that shit!”

“Did you hear ‘Triumph’ by Wu-Tang?”

“Who you think had the illest verse?”

“Man, I don’t know. Inspectah Deck murdered that shit. Nigga said, ‘I bomb atomically / Socrates’s philosophies and hypotheses / can’t define how I be droppin’ these mockeries . . . ’”

“Yo, that was ill, but Raekwon killed that shit, too: ‘Ayo, that’s amazing / gun in your mouth talk / verbal foul hawk.’”

“Yo, what you think he mean when he say, ‘verbal foul hawk?’”

“I don’t know, it might be a play on the words foul and fowl, like he saying he is verbally foul like he’s nasty with the rhymes, or that he’s fly like a hawk.”

“I ain’t even think about that shit. Yo, don’t sleep on that nigga Cappadonna, though. He said, ‘Yo, I twist darts from the heart . . . ’”

And the conversation might go on for an hour or more with people weighing in about what they thought was dope and what was wack.

We don’t have musical instruments in here. But there are a few dudes who can sing and a few more who can rap. B-Dot raps and sings. His specialty is writing hooks and he has a T-Pain type of vibe. There’s 4ever. He’s from Brooklyn and is a couple of years older than me. He started back rapping after twenty-five years in prison. He said he was inspired after hearing me spit a verse I wrote. One of the best rappers in here is this guy named Cmurf, who also goes by Twig or El Presidente. Stylistically and content-wise, we are so different. When he raps, he likes to pound his chest and snap his fingers. He’s ill with beats. I can tell Cmurf to kick the beat from such-and-such song, and he’ll hit it right on the spot. He sings a little, too. We chop it up about music all the time. Sometimes we sit at the table and just rap for hours. He’ll do one of his songs and I’ll do one of mine, back and forth. People come up and listen for a while, and sometimes make requests: “Alim, spit that one about the Prophets,” or, “Cmurf, do that ‘El Presidente.’”

Out in the dayroom, I’m a human music machine! I kick it with several people and often give them a sample of something I’m working on to see if they’re feeling it or not. I might roll up on Jamil and say, “Yo akh, check out this hook and let me know what you think.” (Akh is short for akhi, “brother” in Arabic.) I’ll spit the hook and he might give me some feedback. Sometimes I can get a little participation. I might get Chanton—who raps but prefers reggae—to do a beat for me and Chubb. Or I might tap out a beat, get somebody to do a clap, then ask someone else to hum a melody.

Recently, I worked with my producer Nick Neutronz to create an online platform on SoundCloud to showcase other incarcerated artists, and I’ve even done a few mixtape songs with them. It’s called Pen Game Productions.

Back in 2018, I started recording songs over the prison telephone. The phone was all I had—no microphone, no recording equipment, no way to play a beat while I rapped, and no way to hear what I sounded like. But just having access to a shared wall phone was a huge change in my life. Until 2016 Death Row prisoners in North Carolina were allowed only one ten-minute phone call a year. We had that one call in December so we could wish our loved ones happy holidays, and that was it. What I am doing now, recording and releasing music, just wasn’t conceivable until we started getting regular phone access.

Before I started recording, I had almost never shared my music. I wrote my rhymes for myself. It was my good friend Mu’min (Jason Hurst) who sparked the push. He came to visit me in my cell one day and saw me searching through a couple of large manila envelopes. When I got down on my knees and dug out some more envelopes, Mu’min asked what I was doing. I told him I was trying to find a rhyme.

“Are these envelopes filled with songs?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

So then he asked, “Why do you keep them?”

I looked at him like he was crazy. “What do you mean, why do I keep them? I’m not gonna throw ’em away. They’re my songs. I wrote them.”

“Yeah,” he said, “but what good are they if nobody hears ’em?”

Those words stuck with me. He was right. What good are my songs if they’re stuffed in envelopes under my bunk and nobody ever hears them?

My language is hip hop. For me, hip hop isn’t just about the music. It’s also about the preservation and continuance of our culture. I mean Black culture and, by extension, inner-city culture, and the expansion of that culture through deejaying, emceeing, graffiti, and dance. I also mean the legacy of our people, what’s been done to us, how we’ve fought back.

Take this rap I’m about to show you. Straight revolutionary state of mind right here when I wrote this in 2002 or 2003. I was in lock-up at the time. I was thinking about what I’ve gone through in prison, how that’s part of the same system that brought my ancestors to this country on slave ships. I was thinking about how the only way to get free is to fight for it.

Ready 4 War

They got me locked up
Boxed up
Bound and chained
In a steel cubicle walking around deranged
Pacin’ like a caged lion
Handcuffs and leg irons
Chain on my waist
Pain on my face
I keep my brain on my case
But my eyes can’t hide the anger
I might murk a cat and hide the banger
Living amongst strangers
Godbodies and Hell’s Angels
The drama is settin’
My mama’s regretting
She ever had me
Fuck it I’m livin’ madly
Haters they wanna bag me
Hungry to stab me
Cops rollin’ five deep lustin’ to bank me
The bastards hate me
They wanna strap me down and try to sedate me
But lately
I’ve had flashbacks
Of runaway slaves with lashed backs
Angry harassed Blacks
On top of that
I feel the spirit of the Prophet Nat Turner
On some underground railroad shit, give me a burner
It’s Revolution!
Burn the flag and piss on the Constitution
I’m Ready 4 War! 

When I wrote “Ready 4 War,” I was channeling that Black slave who was captured in Africa, chained, and held in the hull of a ship for three months or more in his own waste, sores festering on his body. Finally making it to U.S. soil to be held in a jail cell as his injuries healed and he picked up a few pounds. Then he was placed on an auction block for spectators to ogle and examine while he was nude. Then he was sold to a slaveowner who took him to a plantation where no one could speak his language, and he was forced to work. He felt the lash on his back from the master’s whip. He felt the anger surge within his chest, but he could not act. He suffered. He endured. Yet the anger still surged in his heart.

I am the descendant of these men, and when I spit these words, I feel an entire legacy of struggle surging through my veins.

From Rap and Redemption on Death Row: Seeking Justice and Finding Purpose behind Bars. Copyright © 2024 Alim Braxton and Mark Katz. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.

Image: John Mukiibi Elijah/Unsplash