A Jailhouse Interview with Tiny Doo, the Rapper Facing a Life Sentence for Recording an Album
Rapper Tiny Doo—real name Brandon Duncan—and his fiancée, Myra Arauz.
The George F. Bailey Detention Facility sits at the end of a long, winding road in the desert backcountry of eastern San Diego County. On Monday night, the fortified compound’s parking lot is almost empty except for a handful of cars. In the waiting room, a football game plays over two TVs while clerks in an office squawk through microphones from behind bulletproof glass, checking IDs, and processing visitors.
Myra Arauz, wearing hoop earrings and a blue Puma sweater, sits and waits to visit her fiancée, Brandon Duncan. A San Diego rapper who goes by the moniker Tiny Doo, Duncan has been locked up here for five months; he can get out, but it’d cost him $500,000 in bail, a sum he cannot afford. So, twice a week, Arauz makes the 25-minute drive from home to visit him.
“We’ve been together for five years,” Arauz tells me. “He is a family man. He’s a great guy, a funny guy, very talented with his music. He’s an artist. A great boyfriend. I have no complaints about him—he’s always been there for me and my son. I have an 11-year-old son who’s not his, but he’s been with him since [my son] was six years-old, and my son loves him. He’s taken care of him. And of course he has seven children of his own.
“And one on the way,” she adds, hands on her belly.
In June, police barged into Arauz and Duncan’s condo with guns drawn, cuffing them and tearing the place apart in search of illegal firearms. Though they found nothing, the cops hauled Duncan away, and now he’s facing charges along with 14 others that he participated in a felonious criminal conspiracy perpetrated by San Diego’s notorious Lincoln Park Bloods gang.
The primary piece of evidence against him? A rap mixtape, No Safety, which features a picture of a loaded revolver on the cover.
Duncan’s situation made national news. While the case centers around a string of shootings that happened in San Diego in 2013 and early 2014, prosecutors haven’t offered any evidence linking Duncan to the shootings. Instead, they’re invoking a California law that says anyone who actively participates in a criminal street gang and “who willfully promotes, furthers, assists, or benefits from any felonious criminal conduct by members of that gang” is guilty of conspiracy to commit that felony. Duncan faces a possible prison sentence of 25 years to life.
Brian Watkins, Duncan’s attorney, calls the case unconstitutional and a waste of taxpayer money (A spokesperson for the San Diego County District Attorney's office declined to comment, as the case is still pending). Other legal experts are also skeptical. Susan Phillips, an author who studies gangs and the U.S. prison system, says conspiracy laws like the one Duncan is being charged with have a history of criminalizing people whose links to actual crimes are tenuous at best.
“Really, with those laws, any of us could pretty much be linked to anything else,” she says. “That’s what’s really dangerous about them. With conspiracy charges, you don’t have to know anything about who else is involved. You don’t have to know the extent of what crimes are being committed. You don’t really have to know the extent of the conspiracy.”
Duncan, 32, was once a rising name in San Diego’s hip-hop scene. With his stocky build and rough-throated delivery, he gained modest success in the mid-’00s and early-’10s appearing on tracks with West Coast staples Mitchy Slick and Glasses Malone. His rhymes reflect on the street life of San Diego’s hardened southeastern neighborhoods, and there’s no denying the kernels of truth to what he’s saying. He grew up in Lincoln Park, an especially violent area of low-income housing and palm-lined streets, and Watkins says police documented him as a member of the Lincoln Park Bloods when he was a teenager in 1997. Gangsta rap was big in San Diego in those days, and in an interview with rap site Siccness.net from earlier this year, Duncan talked about how he rose up in the scene by competing with MCs from a rival gang.
“They made a song, we’re going to make a song,” he said. “One song turned into two songs, and two songs turned into ten songs. And then that’s where that shit came from.”
In 2008, he was arrested on pimping charges along with two Lincoln Park gang members—in a wiretap, investigators caught him giving one of his co-defendants tips on how to get a woman hired at an Arizona escort service, and recommending a street popular for prostitution. He’d moved to Arizona, though, and court records show Duncan’s case was dismissed because the alleged crimes happened outside of California jurisdiction.
People close to Duncan say he’s left the gang life behind. After returning to San Diego, he met Arauz, and she says they settled into a domestic life, moving into a condo several miles removed from the gang drama of Lincoln Park. In the months leading up to his arrest, she held a job at a bar while he did construction. They devoted weekends to playing football with the kids, and spent nights watching Marvel movies on Netflix.
“He doesn’t gangbang or anything… He’s a homebody,” she says. Of the other defendants in the case, she adds: “I’ve been with him for over five years, and I’ve never seen any of those guys around him.”
Phillips, the gang expert, says conspiracy charges in federal court hinge on whether prosecutors can prove the defendant entered into an agreement with his co-conspirators. The state law Duncan is being charged under, though—which was passed by California voters in 2000 as part of Proposition 21, a controversial referendum that ramped up criminal penalties for juvenile offenders—works differently. In Duncan’s case, the question is whether he’s actually an active member of Lincoln Park Bloods, and whether, by releasing his album, he somehow contributed to, benefited from or profited off the shootings brought up in the case.
As Noisey reported earlier this year, rap lyrics have been used as evidence in numerous prosecutions in recent years. In court Deputy District Attorney Anthony Campagna pointed to the gun on No Safety’s cover. “We’re not just talking about an album of anything, of love songs,” he said, according to the L.A. Times. The album does feature relatively straightforward raps about moving drugs and stacking cash, but it makes no mention of the shootings, and it probably hasn’t made Tiny Doo very much money, either. He put No Safety out with the encouragement of his friend Jack Dee, who says he supplied the discs, labels and cases for a small run of CDs to go with a free SoundCloud stream.
“We made 100 CDs,” Dee says. “He gave me 20 and kept [the rest]. You know how much he sold them for? He didn’t sell them for nothing. He gave all of his away.” The album is available for streaming on SoundCloud. “Nine Eleven,” its most-streamed song, sits at a relatively scant 11,311 plays.
Watkins, Duncan’s attorney, says there’s no evidence that any of the people involved in the shootings ever listened to Duncan’s album. Some worry that police might now turn their sights on other rappers in San Diego’s relatively small hip-hop scene, most of whom make little money off their music and would lack ample resources to battle criminal charges.
“What happened to freedom of speech?” says Cesar Tellez, a San Diego artist who performs as Crhymes. “It’s just another form, another way for police to come in and snatch us up.”
At the George F. Bailey Detention Facility, Arauz and I line up with other visitors and walk down a long hallway to a visiting room, where Duncan—in a scraggly beard and blue prison uniform—greets us from behind a glass partition. Speaking through a phone receiver, he tells me he is innocent.
“I feel like I’m being held captive,” he says. “I haven’t done anything.”
He says all he wanted out of No Safety was some local buzz. Some of the songs on it were made as long ago as 2008, and even though it finds him rapping about felonious activities like dealing drugs, he emphasizes that he’s just telling stories of urban communities, citing Rick Ross’ history as a corrections officer as an example that not everything a gangsta rapper says is true.
“I said I had a million dollars on a couple of raps, too. Obviously I don’t have that, because I’d be home already,” he says. “It’s entertainment. It’s not real.”
He says he knows gang members and has been around them in the past—“I can’t help what my mother brought me home to”—but says he isn’t involved in gang life. And though he knows a couple of the other defendants from growing up in Lincoln Park, he says he hasn’t hung out with any of them. “I didn’t even know about this stuff until the day they brought me to jail,” he says about the shootings.
To stay busy in jail, he’s been reading the Bible every day and serving lunch in the jail’s dorms. But he misses his family. His grandfather passed away while he was locked up, and now he’s worried he won’t be there for the birth of he and Arauz’s new baby, Messiah Lee Duncan, who’s due in February.
“I want to go home,” Duncan says.
After the interview, I walk back down the long hall, through the waiting room, and out into the parking lot. Two Sheriff’s Deputies are standing outside, keeping watch. In the car next to mine, a woman is using her rearview mirror to apply makeup, getting ready for a visit. Over the radio in my car, people in Ferguson, Missouri, are absorbing the night’s announcement that a grand jury has decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for shooting and killing Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year old.
Maybe if you do it enough times, driving down this long, winding road can get routine. But after five months of visiting her fiancée in jail, Arauz finds the situation absurd.
“I’m just like, ‘Why him?’” she says. “He’s not selling albums like that, like Snoop Dogg and Tupac. So that means everything that happens in L.A., any shooting that happens in L.A., you’re going to go and arrest every single rapper that’s out there?
“I’m just lost,” she adds. “It’s a bullshit case.”
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