Free And Slightly Bulkier, Keith Murray Signs To Def Jam

Rapper sees new deal as his reward for enduring three-year prison sentence.

How do you remain on top of the rap game? You stack the deck. That's what Def Jam CEO Lyor Cohen's been doing lately. Already commanding a roster that boasts Redman, DMX, Method Man and Ja Rule, Cohen signed Capone-N-Noreaga early this year, and on Monday he acquired the services of Keith Murray.

Signing his contract and making his marriage to the record company official, Murray made it easier for Cohen to rest. After all, Keith would've been his top draft pick from day one.

"I've been pursuing Keith Murray for 13 years," said Cohen, who professed a love for Keith's wordplay. "Ever since I first met him I wanted to sign him, and I got snaked and he signed with Jive. I was sick ever since."

Murray, who debuted on Jive with the gold record The Most Beautifullest Thing in This World in 1994 and dropped two more albums in 1996 and 1998, still owed the label two albums when Def Jam came calling. He was granted his release after Def Jam forked over some money from its vaults.

"Def Jam's got a lot of energy, you know?" said Murray. "And they represent true hip-hop in its purest form as far as back in the days to now. And that's what I represent, so our missions coincide. I felt I could be promoted, marketed and I could be heard in a manner that I wanted to be heard properly if I made this move. It was nothing personal [against Jive], it was just business."

Looking at Murray sitting in Cohen's office on Monday, you could literally see his growth. Barely a month removed from the Connecticut halfway house where he served out the final months of a three-year prison sentence, the 26-year-old has grown his fade haircut into braids and has swollen with 20 pounds of girth.

"I was preserved when I went in," Murray said. "When I was out in the streets I was drinking, hanging out, indulging in drugs, traveling, never getting proper rest. [In prison,] I slowed down. I had a proper diet and proper food, supplied myself with the proper nutritious elements. This is the way I should be."

Then there's his change as a person. He's calm, poised, nothing like the animated "lyrical analyst" who rhymed while standing on top of a Mercedes Benz in the video for "The Most Beautifullest Thing in This World." Murray was forced to put the brakes on his fast-lane living when he went to jail for hitting a party-goer over the head with a barstool in 1995.

"I practically grew up in public," said Murray, who feels his incarceration has helped him mature. "I came out when I was 19 [and had] stardom. I didn't really know about this side of the world — I grew up in it. And a lot of people saw me make a lot of mistakes, saw me do a lot of things that were irrational."

"The kid was nuts, bouncing off the walls," Cohen agreed. "He's more mature now. I'm not sure which Keith Murray I like best, but he's just come home, so he's being reserved. I can't wait to have fun with the Keith Murray I knew before, too."

Getting reacquainted with the outside world, Murray's been mixing his revelry — including a recent Manhattan party for Lil' Bow Wow at Barcode — with family time. Seeking to help others learn from his situation, Murray addressed social issues at last week's Hip-Hop Summit and lent support to Sean "P. Diddy" Combs when P.D. and Shyne were on trial earlier this year.

"Me going through [my trial] was déjà vu," Murray said. "I got family who have been through it. I've been through it a few times. I talked to Puffy a few times while the trial was going on. He was strong, you know? I just had him in my prayers. I definitely felt what he was going through, and I knew that they felt at that present time what I was going through."

Like Diddy, now that he's a free man, all the rapper wants to do is look ahead.

"I'm not mad. I maintained my innocence from day one," Murray said. "There's a lot about this situation that people don't know. ... The evidence, none of it matched. The allegations of the two people never were the same. They still found me guilty. Separated me from my daughter and my loved ones, my means of making money to better my economical situation. I did all that time, man. It was stressful.

"Can you imagine waking up to the same nightmare every day? Then I get out and I get a bigger deal than I ever had in my whole life. That's God rewarding me for enduring so much hardship, and he knows and I know that I did not inflict pain on any individual. So now I'm being rewarded ten-fold."

Murray — who was allowed to have studio equipment in jail, where he recorded his verse for Redman's "Wrong 4 Dat" — said he'll reward fans for their loyalty when his new album drops next year. Although he won't hit the studio for a couple of weeks, the Long Island native already has his project mapped out.

"You can expect a universal sound, [rhymes with me] sitting back, reflecting, looking out the window," the MC said. "Days, months, years passed by. I thought about a lot of things, and I realized that I'm a poet. I made a commitment to embrace the tragedy and fulfill the fate of life, so I'm more honest and emotional. I still have fun. I'm still lyrical. I've just grown to be well rounded."

Murray also said he's going to switch up his formula of primarily working within his Def Squad camp, which includes Redman and Erick Sermon. "I feel as though it's time for me to branch out and explore new sounds from different producers, work with new artists, try new things."

After all he's endured, Murray's not worried about trying to live up to his own hype. "It feels good, you know, when you accomplish something. The accomplishment feels liberating, just to be able to be in society and physically work toward achieving your goals — it's the most beautiful thing in the world, baby."