Gangsta rapper in search of a 'universal language'
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The gangsta rapper Camoflauge wrote most of his album Strictly 4 Da Streets (Drugs, Sex & Violence, Vol. 1), during a three-month prison spell in 2000 awaiting trial for a murder he claimed he didn't commit.

Jason Eugene Johnson (Camoflauge), rapper: born Savannah, Georgia 1981; (one son); died Savannah 19 May 2003.

The gangsta rapper Camoflauge wrote most of his album Strictly 4 Da Streets (Drugs, Sex & Violence, Vol. 1), during a three-month prison spell in 2000 awaiting trial for a murder he claimed he didn't commit.

Appropriately enough, the album, his first for a major label, released on Universal the following year, contained tracks such as "Murda Still the Case", "Get Up Off Me", "Missin My Block" and "Raised in Da Ghetto". The rapper used his urgent, staccato delivery to confront his demons and admit his past misdemeanours, while declaring his innocence from more recent charges. He said,

This is really from my heart to the pen. I was trying to write all about my life, all about me, all about the streets. Everything I know about the streets and everything I've been through.

Part of the Southern rap scene which launched the Atlanta-based duo Outkast (of "Miss Jackson" fame), Camoflauge became a local hero in Savannah, the Georgia town he put on the hip-hop map and where he was shot dead.

Born Jason Johnson in 1981, Camoflauge grew up in the public housing projects of Savannah, where, he said,

The streets got rougher and times got harder. Growing up in the ghetto, it's not all Forrest Gump. There was a lot of banging and stealing going on, all compacted into one little city.

As a teenager, he sought refuge in the rap music of N.W.A. and Tupac Shakur, the hip-hop star who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas in 1996. Camoflauge said,

He was my biggest influence. Tupac used to speak about what was real. How his mom was on drugs, how he was a thug. Things he did, the way we live. That just taught me to keep it real throughout all my music. I just knew how to rap. I put all my life experiences on tape.

Camoflauge probably misspelt his stage name to avoid confusion with the notorious Baton Rouge rapper Mac the Camouflage Assassin. Camoflauge explained:

Niggaz can't see me, that's why I'm Camoflauge. I flow different every time, I'm always just camouflaging with the track, my lyrics disappear into the beat. You never know how I'm gonna come.

Like his troubled hero Tupac, Camouflage fell foul of the law and was arrested on drug possession charges on a number of occasions. In 2000, he was charged with murder in the death by shooting of the 17-year-old Kenneth Capers, but was released after a grand jury failed to indict him.

By then, Camoflauge had sold 20,000 copies of Crime Page, an album he released with the hip-hop collective Crime Affiliate. When I Represent, his solo album on the independent label Pure Pain, shifted over 50,000 copies, Universal offered the rapper a deal and issued Strictly 4 Da Streets, which charted in the United States in 2001. However, when Camoflauge was arrested for possession of crack cocaine, Universal didn't pick up the option on his contract, even though the charges were later dropped.

Camoflauge defiantly released Keepin' It Real, again on Pure Pain, in 2002. Like most gangsta rappers, he displayed a schizophrenic attitude towards crime and violence, boasting about his past in his hard-hitting albums while attempting to discourage local teenagers from taking up a life of crime. Dressed up as "Camo Claus", he visited local schools in Savannah at Christmas to distribute gifts to children in the housing projects. However, his tendency to flash wads of dollar bills and drive around his home town in a Ford Expedition with his face and name painted on the side of the vehicle helped draw attention to his success. Last September, Camoflauge was shot and suffered minor injuries, prompting him to move to the Savannah suburbs.

The dreadlocked rapper claimed he always knew he would be famous. "Everyone knew it was going to happen. I just wanted to be like the boys I saw on the corner, with gold teeth and fancy cars," he declared. Although Camoflauge was proud of his Savannah roots, he saw beyond his native Georgia - "I try to come on speaking a universal language. I just don't try to make music for the South, I make music for the world."

Pierre Perrone