John Wallace went to jail and prison19 times, starting at age 18. Then he was sent to San Quentin, where he served two terms and started writing rap lyrics on his last trip there in the prison’s West Block.
An initial opening to a career in music happened by chance when Wallace and other inmates created what he described as a “radio show” called K-FU** Radio in the cell block where they would sing, rap and tell jokes at night. He said it was like comedy night in the cell block, and it inspired him to write music.
“We made the best of our time,” said Wallace, now 41 years old and nearly a decade removed from criminal activity.
Wallace said when he paroled, he experimented with drugs and got involved with gangs and later left both alone. “I didn’t want to come back” (to prison), said Wallace. “I was exhausted and wanted to make some changes.”
When he ran the streets, his family used to tell him he was disgracing himself. But what made him enter recovery was something his daughter said to him on Father’s Day. “I don’t want to bury my father,” she told him.
Feeling humiliated, embarrassed and shame, Wallace decided to deal with his addiction.
Another change came in the form of music. After serving time at California Rehabilitation Center, California Medical Facility- Vacaville, and the ranch at Folsom State Prison, Wallace paroled for the last time in 2008 and discharged from parole in 2011.
Getting out of prison, Wallace said it made him realize his real friends didn’t offer him drugs or try to invite him to commit criminal activity. His good friends, he said, encouraged him to go to school.
Wallace returned to San Quentin in May. But this time he wasn’t wearing prison blues. Dressed in all black attire with red, high-top Timberland boots, he visited the prison’s media center to dis- cuss his nonprofit Surviving The Odds Project, STOP for short, where he is the founder and CEO.
Wallace’s wife, Melissa Greene, is the co-founder and executive director of STOP. She said “John is the face of the program,” and she works behind the scene. We’re “so opposite but (we) work well together,” she said.
“I was trying to hold back tears,” said Wallace. “It was emotional coming back. It’s eye opening to come here.”
“STOP will improve the lives of local youth through engagement in therapeutic self-exploration and self- expression by providing an innovative music and video production program to the underserved and margialized…population in Marin County,” its website says.
Wallace learned about equipment and video production at Community Media Center of Marin. While in the Marin county jail, he learned about a grant for mental health. He said funding was available for people to write about life experiences, so he applied.
Wallace said it was Cesar LaGleva of Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, who clued him in on available funding for kids. LaGleva’s wife, Liz Prior, is the principle viola player for the Marin Symphony.
STOP targets at-risk youth who attend Marin County schools, such as Marin Oaks High School, Madrone, and San Andreas. “The kids are really getting an opportunity by coming through our program,” said Wallace. He built a multimedia studio at Marin Oaks, where he decided to make the studio a one-stop shop.
“Kids hear about the program through word of mouth,” said Wallace. “And no experience is necessary for kids to participate in STOP.”
The program starts with a group of about 15 kids. Wallace said about 11 to 12 finish the program. which meets twice a week for several months. There, they feed the kids, teach them song writing, recording and videotaping skills.
Wallace does on the outside what artist and producer David Jassy does with youth offenders on the inside of San Quentin. The two met in the prison’s media center and shared some ideas. Jassy extended an invitation to Wallace to participate in the 16 Barz Behind Bars project at the prison.
“I think it’s cool for you to come back to do 16 Bars Behind Bars,” said Jassy.
Jassy said “Some people don’t understand the impact this music has on kids.” He said Wallace’s influence will help make a difference.
Jassy prepared Wallace to record a few rap lyrics. After Wallace selected music created by Jassy he was ready to record.
On playback they overdubbed some ad lib tracks and layered the previous vocals with a duplicate track to expand the dynamic presence of the sound. The two of them discussed the possibility of STOP, YOP mix tape inmates and San Quentin’s SQUIRES program collaborating to help youth inside and outside of prison.
“I’m super excited to work with you, especially from prison,” Wallace told Jassy.