Julio "Ceschi" Ramos has played the Milestone plenty — the Queen City punk and metal institution has been a natural fit for the Connecticut rapper for years. Yet his Aug. 8 show there is his first back since his late 2013 imprisonment stemming from a massive pot bust on Christmas 2010 — one he maintains was a setup. Still, he could have been locked away much longer — five years, it seemed at one point. Even now, he's on parole.
"I'm doing week-long tours because parole allows me to do it," Ceschi says. "They give me these travel passes that allow me to leave the state for a week."
After all, his music is his work. Aside from his own material, which splits the difference between Chip Fu-style rapid fire hip-hop and urban anti-folk, he and brother David are co-owners of Fake Four Records — named for Ceschi's four-fingered right hand.
He was terrified at first that the label wouldn't survive his imprisonment, but it has — due in part to the grassroots Free Ceschi movement that coalesced to support the label and demand the rapper's freedom.
Ceschi believes this pressure, including massive amounts of mail from supporters, helped cut his prison time: of an 18-month sentence, he served four. During that time he thought about music a lot, but he wasn't writing any. What he did work on was nostalgic stuff, prose and poetry about missing people or wanting to be in nature. More than anything, he adapted to prison rhythms — in some ways familiar, and in some ways foreign to this touring musician and label-head.
"It's just a very slow life. Out here we're so used to the speed of technology — cars rushing by, stuff like that. In there, it's just like," Ceschi pauses and makes a sound like air going out of a tire, hands out like a magician who's just done a vanishing trick: "Everything's gone."
At first, in September 2013, he was in New Haven's crowded, uncomfortable county jail. He and the other inmates slept on the floor in a large room with a single foul-smelling toilet. The guards woke them every morning at 4 and kept them on lockdown 23 hours a day. From there he was moved to Niantic Annex Prison, which he describes as a less cushy version of the prison in Orange is the New Black, and finally to a sort of halfway house before his December release on parole. Ironically, being a touring musician prepared him for some of the things he encountered.
"On tour, oftentimes you'll find yourself sleeping in a room with like 10 other dudes all lying around you in a stinky fucking room in a punk house or something," he says with a laugh. He's no stranger to sleeping on couches for months or even once, crashing in an anarchist squat house and waking up the next morning to realize he'd spent the night on a sack of dumpster-dived potatoes.
"For me, to sleep in a prison surrounded by a hundred people, it wasn't that different," he says. "It's just the fact that you have to live there."
Still, it wasn't easy being a locked-up vegetarian. At least at first, all he could eat was the sides. Even on the prison's vegetarian plan, Ceschi says with a wry smile, it was fish every night. "I don't eat fish, so I basically had to eat the sides. It'd be, like, a little bit of rice," he says. "I lost, like, 20 pounds in the first month just from starvation."
Socially, too, it could be tough. There were some guys, Ceschi says, who adopted tough-guy personas. They could be petty and difficult and took on names like "Ice" — Ice, in particular, gave Ceschi a hard time in Niantic — though there was something absurdly high school-ish about the practice. "That was a lot of people in there, they just did not want their legal names out there," he says. "Maybe because they were names like Gordon, something like that."
Ceschi laughs a lot when he talks about his imprisonment, though it seems as though he's still processing it. Since he's been out, he says some of his mail has been intercepted, opened and delayed — Amazon packages and the like — and he's experienced paranoia and PTSD symptoms. Still, he adapted; he made friends while he was locked up, and — when he got out — his label and hip-hop career were just where he'd left them.
"I have no savings. Everything that I have is just constantly getting flipped into this label," he says. "The fact that everybody came through and did the Free Ceschi campaign, that was amazing. That really saved us."