Singer-songwriter and producer John Forte was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1997 for his work on the Fugees' multiplatinum album "The Score." But he's now best known for the November 2008 commutation of his prison sentence by President George W. Bush. Forte was released after serving seven and a half years of a 14-year sentence in federal prison for drug trafficking.
Since then, Forte has been busy. He's laying down the framework for 24 new songs at a downtown Manhattan's Pulse Music studio and hitting the stage for the first time in eight years in New York with the Roots, Talib Kweli, Chrisette Michele and Pharoahe Monch.
In addition to signing a book deal with Simon & Schuster to publish his memoirs, he's blogging for the online news site the Daily Beast and working with In Arms Reach, a nonprofit program committed to promoting a positive environment for children of incarcerated parents and at-risk youth.
Billboard: The new tracks have a melancholy, lonely quality. Is that how you felt when you wrote them?
John Forte: These songs were written while I was away, but they're not necessarily about being away. The songs are like haiku in that they are concise. There is a tinge of solitude in them but it's a reflective, centered solitude. Not that I'd resigned myself to my fate of 168 months or 14 years in prison. I resigned myself to the present.
Billboard: Did you listen to music while in prison?
Forte: I ended up listening to (Philadelphia's triple A station) WXPN in the south New Jersey area where I was for at least the last four years of my sentence. I got turned on to so much: Jose Gonzalez, Regina Spektor, Sia, Rachael Yamagata, Cat Power. I actually used those guys as barometers to my songwriting. The beauty of Cat Power is the divine imperfection in her voice. I don't listen to her expecting any perfect notes and pitches, but I believe her, and that's what motivates me.
Billboard: In some ways, you seemed to have evolved beyond hip-hop. How does that part of your past fit into your new material?
Forte: I take umbrage with the fact that when the press came out after my sentence was commuted, I was referred (to) in every periodical as "rapper John Forte." I'd like to think of myself as a musician who happens to rap. But whether hip-hop becomes more commercial or more thugged-out or more about conspicuous consumption, it will always have that undertone of speaking truth to power, questioning the status quo. That's what always defines hip-hop, always has and always will.
Billboard: You were released in December, and you're already busy. How did you make such a swift transition?
Forte: I have great people in my life. It's through the competence, the compassion and the love of the people around me that has made this transition as seamless as it appears. It's not lost on me -- the blessings and the opportunities that have been put before me.
Billboard: Did people keep in touch with you during your time in prison?
Forte: When the really hard days hit and I felt despondent, dejected and the social pariah that a federal number sets you up to be, I'd go to mail call and get one letter from a fan. I was at my nadir, and then out of the blue -- of course it's never out of the blue, everything happens for a reason -- I would hear from a fan or somebody who appreciated what I put out there. It was reaffirming that the music had its own course.
Billboard: Why did George Bush decide to grant you a commutation?
Forte: I don't think I'm qualified to answer that. I know that we went through the process like everyone else. I had a lot of support, but it was my last ray of hope. I went through my appeals process. It was a tiny sliver that opened up to me being here now.