Hours before a show at The Berkeley Café in downtown Raleigh on June 4, 2004, Joe Murdock III—busy earning a reputation throughout the Triangle as the hard-spitting, masterful freestyle rapper Jozeemo—was arrested on a probation violation stemming from a series of gun-related charges in Durham. He spent much of the next two years in a West Virginia prison, inmate number 24584056 in Beckley Federal Correctional Institution's Pine Unit.
"It was hard to get inspiration in prison because, truth be told, I didn't want to come home with a bunch of 'prison raps,'" says Jozeemo, sitting on the front porch of his mother's house in Durham, where he now lives with his two children. He's been back in Durham since late February. "I might have filled up three little composition books, but--now, being out in society and getting inspiration--I'm writing better, conceptualized rhymes. I haven't written a song about being in prison since I've been home."
He's writing with a purpose, too: Last month at The Lincoln Theatre, Jozeemo premiered as part of Hall of Justus, the local hip-hop collective that has made Little Brother, L.E.G.A.C.Y. and several others legitimate national players. In March, Hall of Justus will issue Jozeemo's debut, Jozeemo's Home: LAF, an acronym for "Life After Feds." Justus owner Mischa "Big Dho" Burgess knew of Jozeemo before his arrest. When he first saw Jozeemo perform at an emcee battle, long before founding Hall of Justus, he knew Jozeemo was the kind of rapper who deserved a record deal. His arrest, says Burgess, has only served a setback, and he feels that Jozeemo is the emcee who not only completes his Hall of Justus crew--"Now, I've got a performer for every occasion"--but that he is both poised and talented enough to make it with his words.
"The average person would say the street guy is brutal and that they kill the fiber of the community and they're not very intelligent," says Burgess. "He's the direct opposite of all of that, even if he has a past in the streets. He's got his family, he's got personality, he's witty and he's very intelligent."
Burgess acknowledges that most Justus League fans will be puzzled by the addition of Jozeemo, who has made his reputation reporting about guns and drugs from the streets. Jozeemo has historically been a hard emcee, and he maintains LAF won't dismiss that reputation.
"A lot of people are gonna think that H.O.J. and Jozeemo don't sound good together," says Burgess. "But they think we're all these backpackin', treehuggin' rappers. I'm not saying anyone here is murdering people, but there is a lot in common between both ends of the spectrum. He's a stand-up guy, and I like to believe everyone in my team is."
As for his rhymes, Jozeemo plans to carry the same swagger and street-possessed imagery that initially made him a Triangle favorite. It's just that the credo, he says, will be different.
"I'm going to glorify my freedom, I'm going to glorify what's going on right now," says Jozeemo. "I talk about a lot of unsavory things like gunplay and drug-dealing and this that and the-third, but I consider myself as telling a story. I did it so you don't have to do it, and I hope you learn from my lesson."