Remy Ma Never Rests

A candid conversation with the New York rapper about the women she met on the inside, the person she’s become, and the solo record that will tell all.
Story by Sheldon Pearce
Remy Ma: “We Have To End The Private Prison System” Remy Ma   Photo by Piotr Sikora for VH1

Everyone around Remy Ma says she’s never been better, but she isn’t convinced. “I have people like my husband and Joe and the Cool & Dres and the DJ Khaleds being like, ‘Omg you’re phenomenal. You were good before but now...’ and I’m just like, whatever,” she says over the phone from New York, feigning annoyance but unable to stifle a laugh. “I feel like I was as good then as I am now; y'all buggin’.” One of the most formidable rappers in the tri-state area and beyond, Remy is indeed as sharp today as she was when she guested on Big Pun’s posthumous 2000 album Yeeeah Baby or when she stole the show on the 2004 chart-topping Terror Squad cut “Lean Back.”

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In the 18 months since serving an eight-year sentence at New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, she’s ripped through remixes of Dej Loaf’s “Try Me” and Phresher’s “Wait a Minute” with punch-heavy bars, and earned two Grammy nominations for the breakout hit “All the Way Up.” Her dedication is clear: in summer 2014 she was back in the studio just hours after being released from prison; she skipped her honeymoon to record a banger; and now just months later is gearing up to release Plato O Plomo, her collaborative album with Fat Joe. Mostly celebratory, the record mixes raucous turn-up anthems with more R&B- and island-tinged escapist jams. In a way, it is both the epilogue to her prison term and a prelude to a more personal, forthcoming solo record that recounts the story of those days on the inside, removed from her family and surrounded by women “abandoned” by the outside. In the interview below, Remy opens up about reconnecting with her Terror Squad roots, fighting for prison reform and awareness, and prepping a sophomore album about the seasons she lost.


What prompted you and Joe to come together and do this album now? It feels like a full circle moment?

I think it was just time. I was doing my own thing. I've been gone for a while. He's kind of been on hiatus for a little while. But one day we had done a performance together in the Bronx. That was probably the first performance we did in I don't know how many years. And the response from the crowd was just so crazy. I was just like, "You know what, maybe we should give this a try. Let's just see what happens." It was like a shot in the dark type of thing: We'll go in the studio, we'll record some songs, and if it comes out dope then we'll go from there. It can't go halfway, it can't be alright, it can't be okay. It has to be crazy because the last thing that people heard us on together was "Lean Back," which was Grammy nominated. So we have to be at least up to that par. We went in the studio and we started recording and it was just coming out amazing. Actually, the first song that we recorded together was "All the Way Up."

Some people might expect the album to be 12 versions of "All the Way Up," but there are a lot of different sounds and ideas on it. Did you guys have an agenda when you made it?

It wasn't even like we were trying to do a lot of different things. It was just that was the way it came out, and we took the best of the best. It was executive produced by Cool & Dre, who are like geniuses as far as I'm concerned. I've been working with them since I was young. As they cranked them out on the production side, we just went in and did what we did.

Fat Joe, what I can say about him — what people in the industry but not too many fans know, his ear for good music is like none other. He can smell a hit a mile away. Me, I don't have the patience. I cannot sit there and listen to a hundred million beats. He will sit there and listen to beat after beat after beat until he sniffs it out like a bloodhound. So that process took a little long. I give him all the credit. He sat in the studio and listened to beats for months. The whole summer and maybe even some of the fall. He was going to clubs seeing what songs was popping, trying to see what people was really feeling, what the vibe was and once he picked all the production and things like that we went in there and we probably spent like two weeks, three weeks tops, and laid vocals down. And that's how we've always worked, even when we did the Terror Squad album. The one that I was on — True Story that had "Lean Back" and "Take Me Home" — we did that the same way. We picked the production, then flew down to Miami for like two weeks. And it's crazy because it seems like a fast process, but when we're in there we're just locked in the whole time.

You've been in the game a while now. How would you say your music is different now than it was when you started, or even than it was even a decade ago?

You know what, it's weird because due to the timing of when I first did my verse on Pun's album to now, yes, that's a long time. But there was an eight year period in the middle of all of that where I couldn't put out no music at all, period. So, to me, everything is still fresh and new. I only have one solo album under my belt. This is just the third album that I've even worked on. I feel like I missed so much. As far as how much I've changed, I think everything is just growth. I feel like I'm as good as I was then, but then I have people like my husband and Joe and the Cool & Dres and the DJ Khaleds being like, "Omg you're phenomenal. You were good before but..." and I'm just like yeah, whatever. I feel like I was as good then as I am now, y'all buggin'. But apparently, they all think I'm much better now. I don't know if I should take it as a compliment or what. But if I never put out another record or album in my life, I'd still record music. That's just in me.

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“Everybody always tries to pit women against each other. But I feel like we’re so different. We aren’t even in the same lane at all, period.”

How do you view your role in music now? You've always called yourself the "Queen of New York," but it seems you're talking bigger now, and taking more shots.

Every artists has that braggadocios streak in them. I've always felt like, when it comes to this rapping, I think I'm the best. And I say "Queen," but god-honest, put my life on it, I feel like I'm better than a lot of guys. I hate that there are instances where I just get compared to females. And that's not just for me, I feel like there are other females that are better than some of the guys. I just tend to think that I'm better than a lot of the guys. I feel like it's time to stop all of this "she's dope for a female" shit. Nah. Stop playin'. My pen has never been questioned.

Anybody can get it. That's how I be on it. If you listen to my old mixtapes, if I ever had a problem with any female or anything ever in life, I will say your name. But I'm not just gonna go and come at somebody just to do it. Even when I first came out I never felt like in order to get on I had to tear down this female or that female. I've never done that in my life. But the problem is, there's only been one person reigning for so long, so any time I say anything it's, "Oh, she gotta be talking about this person." I'm open to working with anybody and I don't have any problems with anybody. I don't want no problems with anybody. I'm very happy and I'm in a good space in my life, and I don't want anyone to feel like I'm ever coming at them. That's that.

Everybody always tries to pit women against each other. They make it seem like there can only be one female at a time. But I feel like we're so different. We aren't even in the same lane at all, period. We are on total different ends of the spectrum. But whatever.

How has your life changed post-prison? How has your outlook changed?

Well, I would definitely say I'm not as reckless as I used to be. Would've probably been totally different ten years ago. I'm a little bit smarter now, and more worried about my business. Before, when I was young, I just wanted to be the best rapper. I didn't care about all the other stuff, I just wanted them to be like "shorty is dumb nice, she's crazy." Now, it's not even about that. I think differently now. I don't even care about the things I used to care about. And I think that's something that just happens with growth. I'm not 25 years old anymore. I don't think like a 25-year-old. Before I was like, I just want to put out this mixtape. I just want the streets to hear this. I just did this freestyle, it's crazy. But bruh, a mixtape is free. I'm not doing that shit anymore, really.

“I’ve met women that haven’t seen their children in a decade that live 40 minutes from them. Women who have husbands that they haven’t seen since they got incarcerated 20 years ago. Women whose friends have signed them off as a loss.”

Can we talk a bit about the prison system for a bit because you've talked a lot the past few months — and just in general — about women, particularly black women, being abandoned in prison, and just the way that the system is totally corrupt.

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Well, first let me say, people be like, you're out of jail now — and by people, I mean idiots on social media who just type because they have fingers — why do you talk about prison so much? I'm almost positive I have some type of PTSD. I really went through a traumatic experience. Almost a decade of my life was consumed by the prison system. Of the past 15 years [as a rapper], I've spent most of that time in prison as opposed to the "free world," so I don't think I'm going to forget any of the things I went through, and I still have people that I have learned to care about that are there, and will probably end up having to spend the rest of their life there. So, if I can do anything or create any type of awareness — because honestly I know I didn't even know.

Prior to me actually being there, I didn't know any women that went to prison. So I've gotten to meet women that haven't seen their children in a decade that live 40 minutes from them. Women who have husbands that they haven't seen since they got incarcerated 20 years ago. Women whose friends have signed them off as a loss. And it was even more hurtful because I had such a strong support team in my husband who visited me every single day the first year, and then every year after that as much as he possibly could. And I had a visit every single day. So any day — in a prison of 900 to 1000 women — I would be down there with a visit and there would be like two or three other people. There was times where I was on a visit and I was the only person that had one. These are people that have husbands and mothers and sisters and children.

And it was so sad to me because I've been to visit floors at male facilities, and it is so crowded that they cut visits short so that the next people can come in. It's so crazy. You'll have girlfriends and baby mamas and pen pals and friends. People with babies and strollers and packages. And most of the visitors there were women. But when it came to the women it was like tumbleweeds blowing through the visiting floor. And I just didn't understand, especially coming from a community where women are the heads of a lot of households. These households are held together by women. The backbones of these families are women because a lot of the men are either gone or in prison for that matter, so seeing these women thrown away like trash just bothered me. Even as I'm going through this ordeal, I can see my children or my husband — there are these women around me who have it way worse. And statistics show women get harsher sentences than men for the same crimes committed. And seeing it firsthand was just really sad.

There's too much room for opinion in something that determines people's lives. One of the guys in the Bobby Shmurda GS9 case ended up with 117 years, and the headline said he was originally offered a 15 year plea deal that he rejected. Okay, I don't know what his case is, I don't know what he did, what was his charges, or whatever. The point that sticks out to me is if you offer me 15 years, how regardless of what happened at that trial do we end up at 117? How? That's life. This is what I be talking about. That doesn't make sense. If I commit a crime that warrants 15 years and you're willing to give me 15 years, that's it. There's no way after trail I should end up with 117 years. And I'm very passionate about it. Not just because I lived it but because I've seen it. When you're in there seven years you get to hear so many different stories, and it's disgusting the way this country operates off the prison system. We have the most people incarcerated out of every country in the entire world. Countries that have five and ten times as many people as we do have less people incarcerated. Why is that?

“When you’re in prison, they do a go-around every hour in the middle of the night, just to make sure that everyone is alive. And I still wake up now. I do not sleep through the whole night.”

What do you think it's going to take to fix the system? Is it even possible?

The first thing has to be the deprivatization. We have to end the private prison system. If you have something that is ran for a profit, and I invest 10 million into a prison, I'm not going to make any money off that prison if I don't have any prisoners in it. That creates a motive to incarcerate people. That's one thing.

The second thing: there are certain rules where once you have a felony or you're on parole or anything like that you can't vote. What does me being on parole have to do with voting? If you're in prison, you can't vote. If you're in prison, your right to vote has been revoked. But these are the people that are making the laws. I can't vote and these are the people that are making the laws that effect my life. If you have a felony, you can run for certain offices, you can't have certain jobs. You can't own certain businesses. And when you look at the majority of people in prisons, they're minorities. So who is this really stopping from voting? Who is this really keeping out of certain jobs? So there's so much that has to be changed, and I don't even know where we have to begin because they all go hand-in-hand. This system has to be attacked on so many different levels through so many different outlets just to get it right.

And it can't be, Oh, if you did this crime, you get anywhere from 5-25 years. Five years and 25 years is a big difference. I know that if I do something and I get five years for it and somebody else does it and they get a year, I'm going to feel some type of way. The guidelines are too large. They've done an excellent job sabotaging things.

So much of it is racially motivated, too.

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Absolutely. It's racially motivated. It's financially motivated. You can be the wrong color, but if you have the right amount of money at the right time you might be good. If you get caught in an election year, it's over for you. That's kind of what happened to me. So they had to act like they were cracking down on crime and all this stuff. It's crazy because I can count numerous times I went to court and it'd be me, Ja Rule, Busta Rhymes, Lil Wayne, like literally we all would have court on the exact same day. That's no coincidence. We get there and the news outlets would be there, TMZ would be there, the [New York] Daily News and every one of us ended up doing time except Busta, he got a crazy fine. Ja got a couple of years, Wayne got a year, and I ended up with the most. It was just a bad time to be doing anything at that time, and that's how it is sometimes.

There's actually a line from "Dreaming" on the new record where you say something like "Used to be in a cell dreaming of home/ Now I'm at home dreaming of a cell." That's one of my favorite lines from the record. Can you talk about the idea behind that?

It's crazy because I would be in jail and I would have dreams that I was home. They would be so real and so vivid, and I would wake up and be in this stinking-ass cell. I would literally start crying because that's how real it would get, and I wanted to go home so bad. And now that I'm home, finally after all of these years, I spent so much time there that it haunts me. I have dreams — while I'm in bed with my husband, my son and my daughter in the next room and I just finished performing or whatever is going on — and I will have nightmares that I'm in jail, and they seem just as real as the dreams would feel when I was in jail. I have dreams that I'm still in prison and it's horrible. You would think that it makes sense to be in prison and you dream that you're home, but I never thought for a second that I would be home and still seeing that place.

When you're in prison, they do a go-around every hour in the middle of the night — an officer on duty goes around just to make sure that everyone is alive. At 5 a.m. they do what's called a live body count where you actually have to move. So, whenever they would walk around every hour it would wake me up. And I still wake up. I literally wake up almost every hour now. I do not sleep through the whole night.

Prison affects everything. That's why me even sitting here sitting here talking to you and being able to be successful and take care of my family — that's not normal. Like, I know that I am super blessed and God has shined some other type of light on me. All of the people I know — like some of them haven't even did half the time I did — they aren't doing good. You can't get a job. Everywhere you go you're labeled this felon. And you have to put it on there, and if you don't put it on there when they find out, you get fired. You can't get a new place to live because that's a question that they ask on your housing application. And in many cases whatever support system you had is gone. It's just like starting from scratch but with all these strikes against you.

“Prison affects everything. That’s why me even sitting here sitting here talking to you and being able to be successful and take care of my family — that’s not normal.”

Last year, you said you had a solo album that was coming out called Seven Winters and Six Summers, and that it had writing from your time in prison. Is that still happening? What can we expect from that release?

The title is still Seven Winters and Six Summers. That's exactly the time that I was gone. I would count my time where my window was. Where my cell was you could always see the trees. So when the trees were bare, I'd be like, just five more times I gotta see these leaves blow off the trees, five more winters and I can go home.

I wrote when I was there, and when I let certain people hear it they'd be like, "You gotta put this out." But I wanted to keep it so I could go to that place. Like, I can never write from that place again. You literally have to be there to do that.

All of the raps for the collab with Joe were written in the studio. That's usually what I do. I'll wait until the day I'm in the studio, even if I have the beat for a month. If have it that long and I write that long ahead of time, I'm going to change it a thousand times. So, I usually just go right in a write it that day. But with this project, for one, it's going to be my sophomore album, and two, it's talking about something that it's very important to me to get it right. So, I wanted to be able to keep these thoughts.

There's a wave that you're on when you're away. You start appreciating the people in your life and reflecting on the hardships in your life. You realize all the things that could've been or may not have been. You have so much time to think. I wasn't drinking. I wasn't smoking. I had all this time to myself and it's the most clear your brain can ever be. There's no way I could ever try to duplicate the feeling that I had in there. It was the same way when I was inside: I couldn't write rhymes about being out. I wouldn't have been able to write "All the Way Up" when I was in prison. You just don't feel like that. You feel like shit. People would be like, "I know you in there writing something crazy." And I'm just like, what? First of all, you don't have all this free time. Second of all, you feel horrible. It is the worst mind-state to ever be in. There's no creativity in there. You're drained.

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If you could go back, knowing what you know now, and tell '06 Remy anything, what would you tell her now?

You know what. I would just tell her treat your music and your career like your job. I'd treat it like a job. Then it was just like fun. And I tell this to any artist that I meet that hasn't really been through anything like that. I tell them, "This is your job." If you worked at a office — a blue collar job — would you bring all of your friends and your family members to hang out in the break room? Would they come to your office parties? No. Only the people that work there go. That's what I would do. I would definitely tell her to take this serious. This is not for everybody. You can't try to give your blessing to somebody else. Only God can give a blessing.


Plato O Plomo is out February 17. Buy it here.
February 17, 2017
Remy Ma: “We Have To End The Private Prison System”