The Bizarre and Tragic Ride of J Sw!ft

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In the early ‘90s, J Swift produced one of the most groundbreaking albums to come out of Los Angeles. But then life took a turn for the worse, sending him on a tragic ride that was only halted by a fateful deportation in 2015. Today, he continues to be hopeful and work to mitigate the mistakes of his past and create a brighter future for his children.
Photographs by Ignacio Marin. Design by Candace Castillo

J Sw!ft believed that he could tour. The immigration judge presiding over his deportation appeal never mentioned any travel restrictions. His lawyer saw no legal complications. So, in the winter of 2014, the hip-hop producer embarked on a European run with his group, Bizarre Ride. Customs authorities arched their eyebrows, but they never prevented him from getting on a plane or returning to his hometown of Los Angeles.

About a month later, Sw!ft received another offer for an international date: promoters in British Columbia wanted to book him for a show in January 2015, Sw!ft accepted. The money was right, but, in retrospect, no sum would’ve been high enough. He flew out of LAX — where U.S. customs officers gave him the green light — and performed in Vancouver. When he attempted to return home, however, Canadian customs authorities flagged him. Sw!ft wasn’t allowed on any U.S. bound plane. Instead, they said, he could try to return to the U.S. at the closest border crossing. Frantic, Sw!ft phoned a friend for a ride, and they sped to the border. He was in handcuffs by the end of the day.

U.S. border agents refused to acknowledge the terms of Sw!ft’s deportation appeal as grounds for reentry. When he tried to return to Canada, however, Canadian authorities maintained his arrest during the 1992 Los Angeles riots should’ve barred him from ever entering their country in the first place. After they arrested him, Sw!ft was allowed to stay temporarily with some musician friends. But he showed up late to a court-mandated appearance and was returned to Canadian federal prison. In March 2015, he was finally deported to Madrid, perhaps forever separated from his wife and four children.

You may not know Sw!ft by name, but rap fans have heralded his work for nearly 30 years. This Afro-Cuban pianist turned producer was the sonic architect who arranged almost every sample, programmed practically every drum, and played all the piano melodies on the Pharcyde’s 1992 debut Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde. Comprised of four former club dancers (Imani, Bootie Brown, Slimkid3, and Fatlip), the Pharcyde transmuted their on-stage energy, off-stage eccentricity, and cypher-sharpened styles into rap that was as hilarious as it was human. They articulated a more bohemian side of Black L.A. life, employing nuance and self-deprecating humor while Dr. Dre and company couched pistol-toting, invincible gangster mack myths in gleaming but fatalistic G-funk. Sw!ft [known as J-Swift back then, he now stylizes his name with an exclamation mark] matched the quartet’s chaotic synergy with his vibrant yet warm Fender Rhodes piano and driving drums, blending hip-hop, jazz, and funk into lush suites that breathed and evolved. He also ensured the group’s more unconventional sonic visions, like pairing two disparate loops on their most well-known single, “Passin’ Me By,” sounded right. After Bizarre Ride dropped, you would have been able to argue that Sw!ft’s beats measured up against those of East Coast luminaries like Pete Rock, DJ Premier, and Prince Paul.

“Wherever my family is, I’m right at home and blessed.” The joy and relief in Sw!ft’s voice is uncontainable when we first speak in January of this year. The 49-year-old is standing outside of an Airbnb rental in Ensenada, a port city in the Mexican state of Baja California, reunited with his family permanently for the first time in five years. “This is as close to California as I can get right now.”

Despite the many tribulations he’s endured to get here, Sw!ft sounds revitalized rather than rundown. So why was he deported to Madrid in 2015? The short and reductive answer is fairly obvious: he was born there. What follows is the far more complicated story of how our country’s complex, disturbingly callous, and ever-shifting yet forever intractable immigration policies created years of hell and potentially permanent exile for one of hip-hop’s greatest producers.

A lawful permanent resident (translation: green card holder) for 35 years who’d lived in the U.S. since the age of two, Sw!ft struggled with substance abuse and addiction for about a decade in the latter part of his life in Los Angeles. He was arrested three times for drug use and possession between 2004 and 2006. Following the ’06 charge, the L.A. immigration judge presiding over Sw!ft’s deportation proceedings sympathized with his pleading children and granted him a stay of removal.

Six years later, following an argument with his wife, he relapsed and was convicted for possession of a controlled substance (Less than a gram of rock cocaine, according to Sw!ft, who compared the size of the rock to a Tic Tac). Deportation proceedings began soon after, effectively ending in 2014 when a different immigration judge issued Sw!ft his final order of removal from the U.S. Sw!ft appealed immediately. Then, of course, he toured Europe and took that fateful trip to Vancouver.

“Unfortunately, he traveled while he was on appeal, which he was allowed to do, but the Border Patrol took a different position,” says Todd Becraft, the lawyer who represented Sw!ft during his 2012 case and subsequent appeal. “He wasn’t allowed back in from Canada, but they were wrong.”

In retrospect, Sw!ft’s Canadian nightmare can be seen as yet another modern analog to Franz Kafka’s The Trial, in which the main character (Joseph K.) is arrested for an unnamed crime and sent to find his own trial. With little direction, K. ricochets through a surrealist bureaucratic maze for so long that his eventual execution is both dark comedy and welcome deliverance. But even Kafka probably couldn’t have imagined the byzantine bureaucracy of the U.S. immigration system, the cold indifference of its capricious laws, and the mercilessness of the mercenaries enforcing them. There is little of even the darkest humor in Sw!ft unintentionally delivering himself to those with authority to execute his deportation prematurely, unknowingly forgoing his appeal, and his chance of remaining in L.A. with his family.

“The U.S. border is a weird no man’s land. The Border Patrol agents, in a way, are not accountable to anybody, only their superiors. You can’t appeal to an independent judiciary. They’re like judge, jury, and executioner,” Becraft says. “I turned [Sw!ft] on to one of the biggest immigration rights lawyers in America, and they couldn’t undo it. [The U.S. Border Patrol] made a mistake, and then they sort of dug their heels in.”

While Sw!ft was coming undone in federal prison in Canada, U.S. immigration attorney Duncan Miller exhausted every means to persuade Border Patrol to reverse their stance. But they remained resolute. There was no going back. In March of 2015, armed guards accompanied Sw!ft on a one-way flight to Spain.

The terror of what might befall him in Spain was as consuming as the thought of potentially going years without seeing his family. Sw!ft had little money. He hardly spoke the language. Fortunately, after years of touring, he had an international Rolodex. He called every friend he knew, couched-surfing while searching for another immigration lawyer to take his case. Eventually, though, Sw!ft realized he’d never raise the money and could no longer impose on any of his Spanish friends.

“That was the darkest time of my life. For a few weeks, I was crying like a baby,” he explains from Ensenada, the momentary somberness of his voice underscoring the lingering trauma of that spring in 2015. “I was doing everything I could from Spain, but we didn’t have the resources.” With the financial aid of Mike Ross, the founder/owner of Delicious Vinyl — the label that had signed the Pharcyde and released Bizarre Ride — Sw!ft rented an apartment.

The phrase “darkest time of my life” is inherently subjective. It’s crashing the Mercedes for some, exiled in Madrid for others. To understand the gravity of that statement for Sw!ft, you have to know the life he’s weighing against those first days in Spain.

In the late 1950s, Pedro Martinez was a bandleader and bass player in a Havana, Cuba salsa band. His life changed after Fidel Castro seized power and began executing officials of the Batista dictatorship he’d just overthrown, as well as all perceived dissidents. Sometime between the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Martinez and the band — likely not wanting to be mistaken for dissidents — fled Cuba for France. Touring brought them to the Canary Islands, where Pedro met Sw!ft’s mother, Dolores. There, they had Sw!ft’s two older siblings, then moved to the Spanish mainland.

Sw!ft was born Juan Manuel Martinez-Luis in Madrid on December 27, 1971. Shortly after the Martinez family got settled, their new Spanish neighbors threatened violence against them for practicing Santeria, the pantheistic Afro-Cuban religion developed by West Africans slaves in Cuba between the 16th and 19th centuries. Fearing for their safety, the Martinez emigrated to the U.S. in 1974. Pedro’s brother claimed they would have religious freedom among a small but growing Cuban community in Inglewood.

Darby-Dixon is just six blocks. Today, the Inglewood neighborhood sits in the shadows of the $5 billion SoFi Stadium and Hollywood Park. Decades before it was zoned for the Rams and Chargers’ stadium, as well as the 1.5 million square feet of retail, restaurant, office space, and thousands of townhomes that are accelerating the already rapid gentrification of South L.A., Darby-Dixon went by a different name: the Bottoms.

The Martinez family moved into a small two-bedroom at the back of 3723 W. 105th St., arriving in the Bottoms after the 1965 Watts Riots and court-ordered school integration had triggered sweeping white flight in Inglewood. These demographic shifts coincided with the rise of gangs in disenfranchised neighborhoods all over South Los Angeles. In the mid-‘70s, the Crenshaw Mafia gang, a notorious Blood faction, established their fiefdom in the Bottoms. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times about the crime and violence in the Bottoms in the ‘80s — the decade that comprised the bulk of Sw!ft’s public education — one Inglewood police officer said, “…you always needed backup in Darby-Dixon.”

“Everyone had someone they knew who was part of [gang] life,” Sw!ft says. “It kind of just got woven into everything.”

Sw!ft’s parents did their utmost to keep the family insulated. His mother cleaned homes and offices while his father played gigs at local Cuban restaurants. Though the family was often on welfare, the children never went without food or clothes. When reflecting on his childhood, Sw!ft mentions gangs and finances sparingly, spending more time praising his parents for their constant presence and affection. They rode bikes to pick him up from grade school, his father perching Sw!ft atop a large, multi-hued pillow in the front basket on the rides home. There were games of catch in the park and coveted family trips to McDonald’s after Sunday church. And on many warm afternoons, Sw!ft drifted to sleep at his father’s feet, Pedro plucking deep, soothing notes of his upright bass as the sun eased out of view.

Sw!ft inherited his father’s musical passion, but he also wanted to imitate and impress the man he idolized. He also hoped his future success would rectify the wrong committed by his father’s Inglewood band. “They were so jealous of my father… On the back cover [of the last record they ever pressed], they had a cool picture of the whole band. And there’s a square that’s supposed to have my dad’s photo. When the records came, it wasn’t there. I visibly saw it break my dad.”

Other children watched cartoons, but Sw!ft learned music theory in that Bottoms backyard. By the age of six, he was a prodigious pianist learning classical compositions at the Mazar Piano Conservatory. By the early ’80s, once hip-hop had made its way West, Sw!ft became obsessed with KDAY (then 1580 AM, now 93.5 FM), the first L.A. radio station to play rap 24 hours a day.

While other Locke High School freshmen were just listening to rap, Sw!ft had already acquired a drum machine and moved beyond mimicking the beats he was hearing on radio, including those of Marley Marl, the Juice Crew producer who worked with Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, and more. Sw!ft soon endeared himself to music teacher Reggie Andrews. Once an arranger for Rick James and a producer for the Dazz Band (including their funk classic, “Let It Whip”), Andrews has mentored generations of standout L.A. talents, including Grammy-winning bassist Thundercat and Grammy-nominated saxophonist Kamasi Washington.

“Were it not for Reggie… I can’t say it enough. I love him. He was like a father to me,” Sw!ft explains. “I didn’t even know what ‘prodigy’ meant, but he would describe me like that.”

The money Andrews had earned from his many musical successes funded his purchase of a multi-unit property on La Cienega and Hill in Inglewood. Here Andrews established South Central Unit (S.C.U.), an open after-school program where high school students could work on music, dance, or just hang out in a place without any gang presence. He paid for everything, including an apartment for the young Sw!ft.

Sometime between the final days of high school and their first grad years, Sw!ft and the Pharcyde’s first three members — Imani, Bootie Brown, Slimkid3 — convened at S.C.U. Soon after, Sw!ft discovered the group’s final element, Fatlip, during a fated showcase at a Crenshaw club. Sporting an argyle sweater, argyle socks, and lensless glasses, Fatlip was dressed like Will Smith doing his best Carlton impersonation on an episode of The Fresh Prince. Still he atomized the mic that night and, after Sw!ft brought him to S.C.U, his style meshed well with the rest of the group. Think of it as the Pharcyde equivalent to Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek finding a stoned Jim Morrison strolling on Venice Beach. Though Fatlip would become a king of self-deprecation instead of the Lizard King, his comic imitation of Morrison’s ability to move from serrated scream to haunted croon landed the one time it mattered.

“Passin’ Me By,” the song featuring Fatlip’s shroom-addled interpretation of Morrison, was one of three on the Pharcyde demo. As banging as it is somber, as eerie as it is emotive, “Passin’ Me By” is a hip-hop classic and one of the most earnest songs about unacknowledged and rebuffed affection in the canon. On their demo the group paired it with “Ya Mama,” a vicious and gut-busting game of the dozens. To round out the triptych, they added “Officer,” a comical but no less affecting chronicle of the paranoia that comes from driving while Black in a violently over-policed community.

The Pharcyde finished their demo at the end of 1991, months before the verdict of the Rodney King trial would set swaths of South Los Angeles ablaze. A bidding war for their first album ensued between Jive and Delicious Vinyl. The group chose the latter, believing that a smaller label would be more receptive to their many artistic idiosyncrasies.

“I loved J because he was super confident,” Delicious Vinyl co-founder Mike Ross says of his first meeting with Sw!ft and the rest of the group. “He was funny. He was doing James Brown imitations [when we met]. He was just kind of like a salesman from the get-go. But he also had a lot of self-confidence. Based on the demo, I knew he could back it up.”

While the quintet composed Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, they split most of their time between recording sessions at Hollywood Sound Studios and rehearsals at a place known as the Pharcyde Manor, a large, crumbling Victorian house in West Adams. It was bereft of furniture and full of houseguests. A biopic of that time would probably look like a cross between House Party and Animal House. Rap bumped incessantly, the Manor walls were spray-painted with graffiti, and they traded togas for blunts and pipes packed with weed from their beloved dealer, Quinton, whom they immortalized on an album skit titled “Quinton’s On The Way.”

“What you hear is what we were living — riding around in the MPV, going to clubs, jumping in the freestyle dance circles, freestyling, going back to the studio, and recording until the early morning,” Sw!ft says. “Then we’d wake up, smoke a blunt, and check out what we did. That was our routine.”

Their routine also included verbal disputes that escalated to physical brawls. This internecine acrimony only intensified after the group took co-production credit for every song except “Otha Fish” (produced by L.A. Jay and SlimKid 3), arguing that they had pulled samples from Reggie Andrews’ record crates and made many in-studio suggestions. Sw!ft was furious, not least because of how this betrayal brought to mind the one his father had suffered with his own band.

“[The group] found out how much money I was getting paid to produce, and they had to split their advance four ways. I didn’t sign on to the group. I just made an agreement to produce the album. Towards the end, they tried to stage a coup. They tried to take my credit for the production and put their names in front of me… No one knew it, but our relationship had changed forever.”

Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde dropped two days before Thanksgiving, on November 24, 1992. Far from a commercial smash, the album only achieved Gold status in March of 1996. Ross partly attributes poor sales to the fact that MTV refused to air the “Passin’ Me By” music video even though, according to Sw!ft, the single was receiving extensive airplay.

Despite underwhelming sales, faint critical praise from rap magazines like The Source, and group infighting that eventually became public record via Grand Royal (the Beastie Boys’ short-lived magazine), many recognized the import of Sw!ft’s contributions to Bizarre Ride. In 1993, Mike Ross gave him a deal at Delicious Vinyl to work with The Wascals, a quartet of high-pitched teenagers that some called “The Baby Pharcyde.” The Wascals finished their ironic and ultimately prophetic debut, 1994’s Greatest Hits, but the group disbanded and the album was shelved until Delicious Vinyl released it in 2007. That same year, Tommy Boy offered Sw!ft a $1M deal to set up his own label, Fathouse Wreckords.

In his early 20s, with no business acumen and more money than he’d ever seen, Sw!ft rented a mansion in the well-heeled Hollywood Hills neighborhood of Whitley Heights, bought a ‘66 Chevy convertible, and issued sizable advances to his sister Mercedes’ R&B group, Jazzyfatnastees. Even under the best circumstances, such a combination of youth, newly acquired wealth, and professional responsibility can be dangerous. At the same time, Sw!ft’s diabetic father’s health was failing. Doctors had amputated both of his legs, and there was little hope.

Sw!ft’s father died while he was in New York, in the middle of the final mixing session for his remix of Prince’s “Letitgo,” a single from the Gold-selling 1994 album Come. “I just broke down right there. My dad was my best friend. He’s the reason I am who I am.”

Sw!ft became a father himself the following year, but the joy of holding his infant son only temporarily stalled a depression-driven spiral that had begun after his mother had called him in New York with the news of his father’s death. The pressures of running a record label, fatherhood, unresolved grief, bitterness about his break with the Pharcyde — all of it weighed on him, and it was all more than he could bear. While Sw!ft still had Tommy Boy money and the Hollywood house, he began experimenting with cocaine.

When Sw!ft could no longer afford the house, he rented space in an old office building on Hollywood and Vine. Mike Ross knew things were bad the few times he visited and witnessed the extent of Sw!ft’s partying. Still, ever the salesman, Sw!ft psyched Ross up on a trio called The Horrible Brothers, which consisted of him, Bucwheed, and Fatlip, who split from the Pharcyde after their second album, 1995’s Labincabincalifornia. Ross knew all three members were spiraling, but he hoped this project might right their respective trajectories.

“They took the budget, bought a bunch of equipment, and started recording, but Fatlip wasn’t even showing up to record. They ended up pawning the equipment that they bought with the advance and never finishing the record,” Ross says. “That’s really when things were starting to get dark.”

Tommy Boy never recouped their investment either. The Jazzyfatnastees disbanded and left Fathouse Wreckords, which only released a few singles: one from Quinton (yes, that one) and another from Bucwheed.

The money ran out around 2003. By then, Sw!ft had fathered his second son and become addicted to crack. He lived under a tree on Ivar, just a short drive from the studio where he’d recorded Bizarre Ride a decade before. Today, Sw!ft is mortified that his sons ever saw him during these years, all too cognizant of how his addiction scarred them.

“[Their mom] would be taking them to school, and I’d be asleep in the little partition [between her apartment and the next] with a crack pipe in my hand. Or, occasionally she’d pull up at the market and I’d be panhandling for my next rock. That’s a lot.”

We have arrived at what probably should’ve been the darkest period of Sw!ft’s life. Between hits, he sometimes pimped women addicts for money, other times imposing on everyone in his phone book. Shauna Garr was among the many he tapped for cash. An entertainment producer who worked for MTV News in the ’90s and now manages Method Man, Garr learned that Sw!ft was on the street and sold him on making a reality show and documentary. Both would chronicle his history, his descent into addiction and, hopefully, his recovery.

The early 2000s was perhaps the peak of gross and exploitative reality television, as seen in many episodes of MTV’s True Life (such as 2003’s “I’m Hooked on OxyContin”). Of course, the film crew cared little for Sw!ft’s plight. “They were like, ‘Can you smoke over here, where the light is coming through?’” he explains. “I was being exploited, so [Shauna] went and got her own investors and finished the film.”

1 More Hit (2007) isn’t available on streaming services, but you can watch several harrowing clips on YouTube. In one scene, Sw!ft shows up at Mike Ross’s doorstep and demands money for a recording budget before Ross tells the crew to shut off their cameras. There’s also footage from the scrapped reality show, wherein Sw!ft has a heated argument with a fellow addict over who smoked how much a rock.

“I’m not ashamed of it because it shows that, no matter where you are, nothing can stop you,” Sw!ft says of the documentary. “People on the streets don’t have a medical plan. They don’t have insurance. When you’re on the street and it’s freezing cold, you’re like, ‘Hell yeah, I want some crack.’ That kept me warm.”

Sw!ft’s cycle of addiction, arrest, conviction, and probation was broken only by failed attempts at rehabilitation. Ross tried to get him help via the Musicians’ Assistance Program (now MusiCares), a non-profit developed by the recording industry that offers musicians free rehab and counseling, but Sw!ft remained adamant about getting clean on his own. “He would listen to me about most things, but when it came to this he was kind of on his own tip,” Ross says.

The 2006 arrest for possession, however, was sobering. Until that day, Sw!ft maintains he had no idea his status as a lawful permanent resident could be stripped for a criminal conviction. When he was arrested for burglary in 1992 (a botched Fox Hills mall looting during the L.A. riots) and driving without a license in 1997, the arresting officers didn’t say a word about the possibility of deportation. Consequently, Swf!ft never thought of applying for full U.S. citizenship.

“This may sound funny, but it’s true. Nobody is asking Black kids for a green card. I saw my green card when I was a kid, but my mom had long since lost it,” Sw!ft says. “Not until after 9/11 did it become an issue.”

Among the many salvos from George W. Bush in his “War on Terror” (pronounced “tear”) was the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which would gradually embolden the soulless thugs running U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But the precarity of residents like Sw!ft’s had already been made worse by another piece of U.S. legislation: Bill Clinton’s 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

In addition to spending $9.7 billion on prisons and implementing the much-maligned “three strikes” rule, the Clinton crime bill allocated funds to hire 100,000 new police officers. According to a 2020 report from the Prison Policy Initiative, an independent research and advocacy organization, there are 450,000 people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses on any given day in America and over one million drug arrests each year. These arrests for nonviolent drug offenses, the roots of which stretch back to both the Nixon and Reagan administrations, are doubly punitive for lawful permanent residents like Sw!ft.

“We have this continued war on drugs in specific communities that creates problems for non-citizens who live in those communities,” says Jorge Guerreiro, a staff attorney who works for the Immigrant Defense Project, a New York non-profit where he advises criminal defense attorneys on the potential immigration consequences of criminal cases.

In 2020, ICE and Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) conducted 185,884 removals. ICE claims that 92% had criminal convictions or pending criminal charges. Of those removed, only two percent were “known or suspected gang members,” and only 31 were “known or suspected terrorists.” ICE’s ERO fiscal year summary doesn’t mention the removal of nonviolent drug offenders, but Guerreiro believes decriminalizing drugs could reduce the number of yearly deportations in the U.S.

“…[D]ecriminalization, in theory, would mean less police contact for non-citizens. Arrests can lead to convictions and convictions (depending on the person’s factual circumstance and the type of conviction) can lead to someone becoming deportable,” Guerreiro explains. “Therefore, if you cut off one of the ways that someone can ultimately be placed in deportation proceedings, that will have an impact that should lessen the amount of deportations.”

The legislation that directly resulted in Sw!ft’s first encounter with immigration courts in 2006 again belongs to the Clinton administration: The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRAIRA). Among many other heinous provisions (e.g., restricting access to relief from deportation), IIRAIRA expanded the crimes for which immigrants could be deported and have their legal permanent residency status revoked. In Sw!ft’s case, that expansion was compounded by language included in the Immigration and Nationality Act (enacted in 1952 and amended in 1965). In short, Sw!ft was originally placed in deportation proceedings because his drug use was classified under “crimes involving moral turpitude” (CIMT).

According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), a crime of moral turpitude is a “nebulous concept” that “refers generally to conduct that shocks the public conscience as being inherently base, vile, or depraved, contrary to the rules of morality and the duties owed between man and man, either one’s fellow man or society in general.” This inherently vague, subjectively interpretable, and quasi-Biblical language allows judges to decide whether nonviolent drug charges carry the same weight as murder, kidnapping, or robbery.

“If this has happened to me, it’s happened to thousands of people. That’s not cool. If I was selling drugs or did a violent crime, I understand. I made my bed, and I’m going to lie in it,” Sw!ft says. “But I was a man who had issues. I was addicted. I was sick. It really is a sickness.”

Guerreiro agrees.

“Substance abuse is a lifetime issue. I don’t think the immigration system or the criminal system treat substance abuse in a way that allows for its ups and downs. These court systems expect people to be perfect forever. You can’t mess up.”

For a time, Sw!ft didn’t mess up. He remained sober and married Kelli Zehnder, a hair salon owner and mother to the last three of Sw!ft’s five children. While he worked on staying sober, Sw!ft began working on Negro Kanevil, a solo debut that would feature him rapping and producing. He also reunited with Fatlip and Slimkid3 to form Bizarre Ride. Imani and Bootie Brown had trademarked Pharcyde under their names, but Sw!ft and his cohorts evaded copyright infringement and were able to perform. Still, he lived with the daily anxiety of being racially profiled by police and potentially deported.

“It was horrifying. It was affecting my music — everything. It’s always in the back of your head,” Sw!ft says. “[With the way cops treat Black people], even if I wasn’t doing anything, I could’ve been charged. Being Black felt like it put me even closer to getting deported.”

J Swift photograph
Photograph: Ignacio Marin

The rest we’ve covered. Sw!ft’s 2012 relapse, another charge for CMIT, his appeal, the Kafkaesque Canadian purgatory, and the eventual deportation to Madrid.

Once Sw!ft accepted that he would remain in Spain indefinitely, he did his utmost to be productive rather than dejected. Mike Ross, Sw!ft’s unflagging patron Saint, funded him while he finished Negro Kanevil (which came out in 2016). “He can pretty much persuade me to do things as long as he’s making music,” Ross says. “I’m going to give him honest feedback, but I’m also going to give him some sort of support.”

Sw!ft also recorded “Dear Obama,” an impassioned plea for a presidential pardon. He raps over knocking boom-bap drums and alternately bright and somber piano, providing a condensed biography and maintaining that his only crime was becoming so depressed and wracked with anxiety that he became an addict. The music video dropped three days before Donald Trump’s January 2017 inauguration. Given the poor timing and lack of promotion, Obama probably never saw the video. To date, it has under six thousand views on YouTube.

The following year, Sw!ft could no longer suffer the daily anguish of paternal and marital separation. He and Kelli began arranging intermittent but all-too-short family reunions in Baja California. After they conceived their third child during one of these trips, Sw!ft became desperate.

In early 2019, by some twist of cruel fate, Sw!ft met an elderly man in Rosarito, Baja California, who claimed he looked like his son. The facial similarity was uncanny. Sw!ft looked almost identical to the Rosarito stranger’s son, Aaron. He paid the man for Aaron’s passport and a copy of his birth certificate. Then Sw!ft called Kelli, set a date for his smuggling, and memorized everything printed on the purchased documents. If he and his family survived the scrutiny of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents, passed from Tijuana to San Diego, they would figure out the next move.

“Aaron, your mother’s reported you missing,” a CBP agent said. Sw!ft panicked, but the agents who’d just opened the doors of his van appeared calm. They believed he was Aaron. “It’s no big deal. We just have to get your fingerprints.”

Before the ink touched his fingertips, Sw!ft confessed. CBP agents detained Kelli and children at the U.S.-Mexico border for 13 hours, and he spent several days at a detention facility in Otay Mesa, a small San Diego neighborhood just north of the border. The trial was more of an ultimatum: fight the case and remain in Otay Mesa indefinitely or sign documents that prevent you from legally re-entering the U.S. for 20 years. With no money for costly legal counsel, Sw!ft signed the paperwork. The ICE agents who escorted him to Madrid told him how much they loved his work with the Pharcyde.

With the U.S. out of reach for potentially several decades, Sw!ft and Kelli decided to make Mexico their new home. For a variety of maddening and seemingly arbitrary restrictions, some implemented due to COVID-19, Sw!ft was denied entry into Mexico on his first 2020 attempt. The second time, according to Sw!ft, border patrol denied him because the plane flew over U.S. territory. Instead of returning to Spain, he flew to Costa Rica and plotted a third attempt.

“I was determined not to go back to Spain. I just couldn’t do it anymore,” Sw!ft says. “The psychological damage [the separation] has done to my kids, to me, and my wife was just too much.” Fortunately, some kind souls at the Mexican Embassy in San Juan helped him navigate the red tape. He made it to Mexico in December 2020, and Kelli began commuting from their temporary rental in Ensenada to her hair salon in Los Angeles.

Today, the same question remains: How does Sw!ft return to L.A.?

When I contacted the Department of Homeland Security for this story, they quickly provided a condensed summary of Sw!ft’s criminal and citizenship history. However, they did not respond to any of the questions I asked that might provide Sw!ft with some clarity about when and how he might re-enter the U.S. According to Todd Becraft and Jorge Guerreiro, an immigration judge must vacate Sw!ft’s charges. In layman’s terms, every charge against Sw!ft would no longer affect his ability to re-enter the U.S.

“It really is just like a never-ending loop of complications and stuff to make it just really hard for people,” Guerreiro says. “That’s why that first contact with the system is so damning. If you get charged with something that is against your favor, you’re in for a while to try to get through this.”

Sw!ft isn’t through this, but the darkest times are seemingly in the rearview. He, Kelli, and the kids now live in a three-story home in Rosarito, just a short drive from the beach. Sw!ft says the house resembles the one on the Fathouse Wreckords logo, and as we speak he strolls the backyard that he calls his “Ponderosa,” a reference to the fictional ranch on the 1960’s western TV series Bonanza. The commute is also much shorter for Kelli. As the COVID-19 pandemic continued in 2021, Sw!ft spent most of his days reconnecting with his kids and helping them complete their school year via Zoom.

“I’m thankful that I’m here for [my family] and that I was able to preserve my inner child, the kid that runs around and digs in crates and finds dope stuff,” Sw!ft says.

Just before he arrived in Mexico, Sw!ft recorded “J Thoven Opus 8:46,” a response to the murder of George Floyd and the history of police brutality perpetrated against Black people. Since arriving in Rosarito, Sw!ft has rededicated himself to music, practicing his piano for hours every day on the M-Audio keyboard that sits in the third-floor studio overlooking the Ponderosa. He’s also acclimating to digital samplers, having primarily worked with analog machines since the ’90s. Once he begins making beats again, Sw!ft has books of rhymes ready for a new album, The 40-Year-Old B-Boy.

At the time of writing, Sw!ft says he’s in touch with an L.A. based lawyer who is once again looking into his case. However, both lawyers I spoke with for this story stress the complexity of immigration law and the difficulty of obtaining a vacatur for each of Sw!ft’s charges. For the foreseeable future, he’ll be in Rosarito, 150 miles south of where he composed an indelible piece of rap history a little over three decades ago. He remains sober and ecstatic, reunited with his wife and children. Like Sw!ft before them, all three of his kids now get a change to grow up hearing their father’s music echoing through the house.

“I can do my thing. I can have my space,” Sw!ft says. “This is my Fathouse studios. I’m so happy. It’s like God is just blessing us with everything we need.”