by Bob Armstrong

C-BO's new CD, ...Til My Casket Drops, hit the number 4 spot on Billboard’s R&B chart the first week of its release in March. But the casket dropped hard on the Sacramento gangsta rapper, whose real name is Shawn Thomas: His music sent him back to jail.

In a highly controversial legal action, C-BO was arrested at his home on March 3rd after the California Department of Corrections determined the lyrics on his new album violated conditions of his parole.

Released from Soledad prison last June after serving 15 months for illegal use of a firearm, C-BO's parole stipulated he not record any music promoting gang lifestyle or violence against law enforcement officers and public official.

Among the 17 tracks on Casket, C-BO's parole officers turned rap critics singled out the lyrics on “Deadly Games,” a cry of vengeance against California Republican Governor Pete Wilson's support of the Three Strike law:

You better swing, batter, batter swing

‘Cuz once you get your third felony, yeah, SC years you gotta bring

It’s a deadly game of baseball

So when they try to pull you over, shoot ‘an in the face, Y’all.

Along with the baseball metaphor, parole officials argued C-BO threatened the life of a District Attorney with the another line in the same rap: “It’s 1-8-7 on the DA.” Penal Code 187 in California is the statute for murder. Another track, “Desperado Outlaws,” suggests offing a Sacramento County Sheriff.

The problem in a nutshell: C-BO's First Amendment rights to free speech clash with the rules laid down by the parole board. Doug Mirell, an attorney specializing in media law issues calls the action unprecedented and outrageous. “The thing that is most abhorrent and renders it most susceptible to being held an improper use of parole conditions is that it is content-based. And if there’s one thing that all the members of the Supreme Court agree about is that content-based matters are what the First Amendment most clearly and unequivocally protects. I can’t imagine a clearer case of someone being punished for the content of his speech,” Mirell told The Los Angeles Times.

Tip Kindel, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, noted that C-BO also violated his parole conditions by travelling more than 50 miles out of Sacramento without permission when he went to San Francisco for recording sessions, and he failed to submit contracts and lyrics to his parole agent. But Kindel acknowledged “the decision to arrest him basically came after the lyrics were reviewed in the context of the severity of their threats,”

After C-BO's arrest the story played out in newspapers and on television screens. A predictable response from the authorities: they backed down. The Board of Prison Terms overruled the Department of Corrections. The lyrics crime was tossed out, although C-BO got 30 days for busting out of Sac-Town’s 50-mile radius.

C-BO's supporters view the revised parole agreement as a victory for free speech. John Duree, C-BO's attorney, said negotiations with the Board of Prisons Terms were satisfactory. “They were appropriately sensitive to the First Amendment issues, unlike the Department of Corrections, which wrote the original conditions.”

C-Bo, whose moniker is an abbreviation for cowboy, said he never considered watering down his lyrics, noting his hard-core take is central to his personae. Moreover, he objects to his rap flow being regarded as instructions to commit murder and mayhem. “Rapping about crime is very different from doing crime,” he said. In an appeal last year on his parole restrictions, he wrote, “Gang lifestyle exists with or without me or my music. To acknowledge lt as part of our society is not necessarily to promote the lifestyle. I no longer live lt, but it is a realistic part of my music.”

And he did live it. The 26-year-old rapper grew up in a single-parent family with eight siblings in the notorious Gardens Block of Sacramento. He readily admit” he sold drug~ and die the gang-banging in Sac-Town, the gritty ghetto war zone a short walk and a mill ion miles from the gle^~ing Capitol dome in California. His rap sheet atarted when he was 15, and he spent a good chunk of the following decade in the slammer,

The unauthorized use of a firearm charge that landed him in Soledad and then sp~lled over into his current trouble. i. in itself a bitter reminder that the wheels of justice eco often slide into the ditch. While filming a music video in a Sacramento park in 1993’ some gang bangers on hand started a small rumble. C-BO fired a blank shot in the air to cool things down, but it had the opposite effect. Some weapons were trandished, real bullets exchanged. In the melee a buddy of CBO’s, 23-year-old King ~iller, was kLllea. After the video shoot C-BO was arrested on the firearms charge and sentenced to two years in prison,

Released in late 1995, a few months later he was arrested in Cincinnati on parole violatians and returned to Jall. He got out last June under parole restriction. curtailing his music.

After backtracking on the lyrics dispute, the authoritie” came up with something else. While the rapper was in jai1 in March, a drug test for pot came up smelling too sweet. Another 90 days slapped on his sentence, likely to get cut to 60 days if C-BO is a good boy. “Man, if they threw all the parole violators back in jail for failing drug tests, the place would be overflowing,” said his publicist, Phyllis Pollack. “They can’t get him on one thing, so they come up with another. It’s a burn. The parole people are like Kenneth Starr. They think they can do anythinq they want. “

More than a million copies of C-sots albums have been sold since his 1 994 debut kicker, Gas Chamber, follow~d by The Autopsy and last year’s One Life 2 Live. He does not make super rap bucks, but he’s doing well, saying he’s averaged about SSS,OOO a year since blasting out of the Gas Chamber while in pri son.

He's married, has one kid and another on the way.

The controversy got him trouble but also created a buzz around thQ CD. , . . Tl1 MY Casket Drops , on the AWOL label snd distributed by Noo Tribe, is still riding high on the charts,

Glven the heat C-BO has been under, one might think he would tone down his rap attack after his third stretch in the sla~mer. Not C-BO. “I ‘m really happy that I now have no limitations on whatever I record,” h. said* “And let me tell you, people better be ready for what I’ve got to say next.”

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