Biden commutes prison sentence of Detroit rapper Drunken Master

The ‘50 Playaz Deep’ emcee says he has a new appreciation for life: ‘I guess God had another plan for me’

May 26, 2023 at 7:39 am
click to enlarge Andre Richard Harris, aka Detroit rapper Drunken Master, was granted clemency by President Joe Biden. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Andre Richard Harris, aka Detroit rapper Drunken Master, was granted clemency by President Joe Biden.

This Independence Day, Andre Richard Harris will be a free man.

Harris was one of 31 incarcerated people out of thousands of applicants to be recently granted clemency by President Joe Biden, signed into effect on April 28. His last day as a federal inmate is June 30.

It’s the latest extraordinary turn in the life of Harris, now 60. Two decades ago, Harris was better known as rapper Drunken Master, whose 2001 hit “50 Playaz Deep” featuring fellow Detroit artist Lola Damone peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Bubbling Under R&B/Hip-Hop Singles chart.

“I’m just blessed to be back with my boots on the ground and a clean ‘face card,’ if you know what I mean,” he tells Metro Times by phone. “I didn’t rat on anybody, I just did my time and the planets lined up — which is crazy, because I expected to spend the rest of my life behind bars. I guess God had another plan for me. It was a dark time, but things are looking better.”

Harris’s prison sentence stemmed from a 2016 incident in which he was caught in Alabama in possession of 20 kilograms of cocaine with intent to distribute. He was sentenced to 10 years at the Federal Correctional Institution in Morgantown, West Virginia, which was to be followed by a five-year term of supervised release.

“I got caught red-handed,” Harris says, adding that he was trying to provide a better life for his son, who has autism. “I made a wrong decision and got caught,” he says.

Another turn came amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when thousands of prisoners were released in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus inside densely packed prisons. Harris was released from Morgantown to home confinement due to having already served half of his sentence, good behavior, and having a qualifying health condition, high blood pressure.

Harris says he’s now back in Detroit living with his sister, and walks more than a mile every day to his job servicing the city’s buses, which he’s held since November.

It’s a tough life, he says.

“One day, back in the winter, it was a big snowstorm out here and I had to walk,” he says. “I looked like a snowman by the time I got to work. Everyone laughed, but I said, ‘I don’t got to walk to work, I get to walk to work.’ And that’s what makes the difference, and that’s what keeps my head held high.”

(Still, Harris says he could really use a ride. “If you got a car hook-up, I’m definitely looking for one!” he says.)

“I commend Biden for what he did,” Harris says. “But more has to be done,” he adds, noting that returning citizens face barriers to employment, housing, transportation, and other challenges.

The same day the Biden administration granted Harris and others clemency, it also announced its Alternatives, Rehabilitation, and Reentry Strategic Plan, a multi-year effort to support formerly incarcerated people with more than 100 policy actions like expanded access to housing, education, employment, health care, banking, and voting rights.

“America was founded on fresh starts, new possibilities, and the belief that every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect,” the White House said in a statement. “Yet, for people returning home to their communities from jail or prison, obstacles often stand in the way of turning this promise into a reality.”

A producer and DJ, Harris’s rap career goes back to the 1990s, when he got a job working for Suge Knight at Death Row Records in Los Angeles before Knight was incarcerated for violating probation and parole. “I worked with him for years before he was sent to jail and Death Row kind of collapsed,” Harris says. After that, Harris came back to Detroit and recorded a mixtape at his home studio where what became “50 Playaz Deep” first appeared.

Harris dropped the tape in 2000 as Drunken Master, and the track soon gained traction in Detroit’s club circuit.

“I would walk in the club, next thing [they] would be spinning my record,” he says. “It started bubbling up, and before you know it, the radio stations started reaching out, asking, ‘Can you do a clean version?’ It was ‘50 Niggaz Deep’ at first.”

Harris says the rapper Kurupt introduced him to Damone at Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s Up in Smoke Tour, who expressed interest in working together. Harris and Damone later recorded a new version of “50 Playaz Deep” at Daddy’s House Recording Studio in New York City, and after a bidding war, they were then signed to FUBU Records, with Drunken Master being the label’s first deal through a joint venture arrangement with Universal Records.

“It was just a roller coaster ride,” Harris says. “People would call me from New York, screaming, ‘Funkmaster Flex is dropping bars on your record!’”

He adds, “They still play that record everywhere, 20 years later.”

Harris says he continued to be involved with hip-hop even behind bars, and wants to make more music.

“It’s in my blood,” he says, adding that he’s glad to be free during the year of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, with a number of events and celebrations planned in the coming months.

“I remember when Proof and Eminem slept on my floor during a music convention trying to get on, when I was already up,” he says. “This was in ’96, ’95. Proof used to freestyle on my tapes back in the day. So I got to help a lot of artists really get exposure on my mixtapes.”

Harris also has advice for young people outside of hip-hop, too.

“It’s a very dangerous thing, and it doesn’t always work out in your favor,” he says of the street life. “These people, they definitely got a place to put you. In prison, they got plenty of bed space, and if they don’t have bed space, they have plenty of plot space in these cemeteries for people who make these unwise choices.”

He adds, “I’m looking at the world through a different set of eyes now.”

Thanks to resident hip-hop head Kahn Santori Davison for his help reporting this story.

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