By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
John Forté speaks on the phone with Orrin Hatch every week. "I tell him everything that's been going on with me, and he offers me words of advice," Forté says. "Every time the phone rings and it's him, part of me is totally in disbelief. Like, 'Really? Is this happening?' "
Perhaps even more astonishingly, the rapper, singer, and producer—who appeared on the Fugees' The Score and Wyclef Jean's The Carnival, and was released from prison via presidential pardon late last year—considers the senior Utah Senator a musical mentor. "He's a brilliant lyricist," Forté goes on, speaking from an 11th-floor lounge at his Union Square recording studio. "And I'm not just saying that. He writes in all different genres: pop, country, gospel. People actually record his music."
One of those people was Carly Simon, the lefty-crusading '70s icon who is now Forté's BFF and benefactor ("Mama C," he calls her). They met after her son (with ex-husband James Taylor), Ben Taylor, was introduced to Forté through friends from Phillips Exeter Academy boarding school, which Forté, a native of Brownsville, Brooklyn, attended on a violin scholarship. Forté stayed at Simon's Martha's Vineyard estate for more than a month near the end of 1999; after he was caught with 31 pounds of liquid cocaine at Newark Airport in 2000 and began a 14-year prison sentence the following year, Simon quickly went to work on his behalf. "Every day, she made a phone call, wrote a letter, or did something to keep me remembered," he says, adding that he's still somewhat baffled why. "She's my godmother—she's just maternal, protecting the nest," he reasons. "I don't question it, not anymore."
After finding little success lobbying Democrat officials, Simon found a more receptive ear in Hatch. They bonded over their love of music, and Simon recorded a version of his country track "Are You Lonely Here With Me?" and performed it in concert. Simon began forwarding Forté's letters, in which he discussed his personal evolution, to the Utah Republican, who was instrumental in convincing Bush to pardon Forté in November.
Perhaps like Warren Beatty, Cat Stevens, and Keith Hernandez before him, Hatch had a little crush on Simon, and this favor was a bit of quid pro quo? "I don't buy that for a second," Forté insists. "What does he have to gain by supporting me if it's disingenuous? No, he was told about my story, he listened to my music, and compassion came into play." He says Hatch is a big fan of I, John—Forté's plaintive 2002 reggae/rock/hip-hop mishmash completed under house arrest while awaiting trial at his mother's New Jersey pad—and is reportedly anxious to get his copy of Forté's new, independently released EP, StyleFREE.
When Hatch finally cops it, he'll hear a meditative and mature (if somewhat disjointed) suite of songs that alternates Pharoahe Monch–style rap discourses on society and enlightenment with love-and-empowerment string ballads. At its best, the EP—full of songs Forté wrote in prison while teaching himself guitar—mines his battered psyche. Standout "Breaking of a Man" tells the story of his emotional collapse and recovery.
"It was going to sleep one night—boom, broken—and then waking up the next morning with resolve," he says. "I was deconstructed in order to be rebuilt and put back together." He contends prison was the best thing that ever happened to him, inspiring him to quit cigarettes, exercise, and recommit himself to family and friends. He left feeling like "the Bionic Man." Having axed his goatee and piled his dreadlocks above his head like a turban, he certainly looks the part at the moment, with his day's worth of stubble, short-sleeved collared shirt, and blue jeans. He eats no red meat, drinks little, and has developed a voracious reading habit.
It's a dramatic turnaround from his pre-prison lifestyle. Though he never used cocaine, his downfall was predicated by his taste for the lavish life, which he acquired after his success with the Fugees—he co-wrote, co-produced, and has two performance credits on The Score—and subsequent deal with Columbia Records. "I'd wake up on a Monday and be bored and just fly to Paris," he says. "When I got there, I'd stay in a hotel and watch cable."
But after his club-minded, star-collab-filled 1998 debut, Poly Sci, tanked, he could no longer afford the lifestyle he was accustomed to. While DJing in Manhattan, he met a Jamaica-native drug trafficker who enlisted him and eventually testified against him after Forté was caught with $1.5 million in freezer-packed liquefied coke. Found guilty of possession with intent to distribute and sentenced to nearly a decade and a half, he spent time in detention centers in Texas, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
Having no idea it was coming, he learned of his impending release while sitting on his bunk eating a tuna sandwich and reading periodicals. George W. Bush was pardoning people, a fellow inmate told him, at which point he called his manager, who confirmed he was on the list. An indescribable greatest-feeling-one-can-experience followed, he says, and then a long thank-you note to Bush. "It was like Jack Nicholson in The Shining: 'All work and no play . . . ,' " he jokes. "Except it was, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you . . .' "
Now ensconced in Tribeca—and single and on the prowl—he has quickly re-entered the music industry on his own terms. "For Poly Sci, I was thinking, 'I have to do this song for this demographic, for this chart,' but I did I, John for myself. That's the barometer for how I approach music now."
His third full-length, Water, Light, Sound, is due in early 2010; he has recorded some 60 songs since he has been home, and has been in touch with old musical partners like Wyclef and Pras. He saw the latter at the Grammys, but is surprised to hear that the "third Fugee" was later dodging bullets with Somali pirates while filming a documentary. "Really?" Forté says, not looking especially shocked to learn of Pras's latest adventures. Perhaps that's not surprising. You don't have to tell Forté that truth is stranger than fiction.