Young Thug's RICO charges and the criminalization of hip-hop : Louder Than A Riot Last week, two of Atlanta's biggest rappers Young Thug and Gunna were arrested under the RICO Act. The DA charged their crew YSL as a gang and the indictment read more like a lyrical analysis than a police report. If this sounds familiar, it's because these same tactics were used in cases we explored with DJ Drama, Bobby Shmurda, and Mac Phipps. In this bonus episode, we speak with NPR's Ayesha Rascoe about the impact of YSL, and how RICO is being used against rap crews.

Young Thug's racketeering charges show how hip-hop is still criminalized

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SIDNEY MADDEN, HOST:

What's up, y'all? It's Sidney. We saw your tweets, so we're back in your feed with a special report. And you know the deal. This show is explicit in every way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SKI")

YOUNG THUG: (Rapping) Yeah, yeah. Let's go. B**** got a Backwood on her nightstand. She must be f***ing with Gunna. Yeah, yeah. I f*** with slatts, and we come to eat rats. And I came with some f***ing piranhas. Yeah. All this Biscotti I got in my 'wood - need somebody grow me a tree.

MADDEN: This is the song "Ski" by Young Thug and Gunna, two of Atlanta's biggest rap superstars who've been arrested on RICO charges. Thug and Gunna were among the nearly 30 people named earlier this month in a Fulton County, Ga., indictment, one that alleges YSL, aka Young Slime Life, is an Atlanta area gang. Now, fans of Thugger know that his record label is also called YSL, and Gunna, as Thug's protege, releases music under that outfit. Gunna is being charged with conspiracy to violate Georgia's RICO Act, while Thug's being charged with one count of conspiracy and one count of participation in criminal street activity.

The paperwork they got on them dates as far back as 2013, and it includes charges ranging from possession of marijuana to assault with a deadly weapon to murder. What it also includes are social media posts and rap lyrics from Thug and Gunna. Tracks like "Anybody" are being admitted as evidence of, quote, "overt act in furtherance of a conspiracy."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANYBODY")

NICKI MINAJ: Thugger.

YOUNG THUG: (Rapping) I never killed anybody, but I got something to do with that body. I got the streets on my back, carry it like I'm moving a body. I told them to shoot a hundred rounds like he trying to movie the body. It was, like, 11 in the morning, skipping school - that's a truancy body. I made me some racks in the morning.

MADDEN: Now, we've talked to y'all before about lyrics being put on trial with the case of New Orleans rapper Mac Phipps and the RICO Act being used in hip-hop in the cases of DJ Drama and Bobby Shmurda. So if you've heard the show before, you know these tactics are nothing new. But you know what's ironic about this indictment? It's the volume and specificity of lyrics, especially Thug's, considering his unorthodox - sometimes even critiqued as incoherent - delivery that's come to define his career, his artistry and his influence in rap. It's almost like the DA is doing a better job writing out his lyrics than Genius does. They jump around Thug's discography, referencing almost ten of his songs in the indictment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLIME S***")

YOUNG THUG: (Rapping) YSL s***, hey. Killing 12 s***, hey. F*** a jail s***, hey. Drinking Actavis, hey. On that snail s***, hey. Cooking white brick, hey, hey. Bricks and bales s***, hey, hey. B****, I'm super-rich. B****, I'm stupid rich. I go apes***.

MADDEN: I'm Sidney Madden, and this is LOUDER THAN A RIOT.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDEN: The DA of Fulton County addressed the use of lyrics in the indictment at a press conference last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FANI WILLIS: I believe in the First Amendment. It's one of our most precious rights. However, the First Amendment does not protect people from prosecutors using it as evidence if it is such. In this case, we put it as overt and predicate acts within the RICO count because we believe that's exactly what it is.

MADDEN: Whole lot of contradictions happening here. So while we are currently hard at work on Season 2 of LOUDER THAN A RIOT, Rodney and I had to jump on NPR's Weekend Edition with Ayesha Rascoe to break down this news and its implications. Here's the conversation.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: So, I mean, just to start off with, can you talk to the audience, who may not be as familiar with Young Thug? I mean, he is a huge rapper. Like, when this news came down, my sister called me up immediately and was like, they got Thug. They got Thug. I mean, she - and she loves hip-hop. And so, like, Young Thug is huge, right?

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, HOST:

Yeah. I mean, he's inarguably one of the most influential artists in hip-hop and pop music today. And, you know, coming out of Atlanta, which is also where I'm from, he's easily one of the most innovative artists to come out of this city since Outkast. Elton John is one of his biggest fans. That's all you need to know.

RASCOE: Yeah, yeah. That says a lot.

MADDEN: Yeah. I mean, he's been making noise in Atlanta for years through mixtapes and appearances, fashion and aesthetic trendsetting. But even outside of those city limits of such an influential place in hip-hop, Young Thug has become an icon for the music industry writ large. He's a huge name.

RASCOE: Can you talk about the connections between, like, the criminal justice system and rappers? Rappers getting caught up in doing time is not uncommon, right?

CARMICHAEL: I mean, the truth is rappers, at least in this country - they're predominantly Black. So, you know, that means 9 times out of 10, they're coming from communities that are historically overpoliced, really. Just like walking while Black was likely to get you stopped and frisked in New York in the early 2000s, rapping while Black would definitely land you in the surveillance lineup of the NYPD's hip-hop dossier back then.

RASCOE: Well, it seems like something different is going on, like, beyond just - obviously, Black people in America are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. But these RICO laws - I mean, they were, you know, designed to target, like, organized crime, the mob, you know, people like John Gotti, like, these very institutionalized, like, organizations. But now we're seeing it apply to rap crews or what, you know, the police are calling gangs.

MADDEN: Exactly like you said. Now RICO is most commonly used as a tactic to sweep up entire street gangs. And the definition of a street gang gets real spongy when you look at it coming in Black communities. So when prosecutors apply RICO to rap, it's not just the rappers getting caught up in the system, but it's their whole crew and their whole entourage. So if you're a rapper and you associate with people engaging in criminal activity - maybe y'all grew up on the same block; maybe you used to run the same streets before you switched into entertainment; maybe you brought them with you out of the streets into entertainment - prosecutors can use all that and use RICO laws to brand y'all as an organized crime syndicate.

RASCOE: Rodney, I mean, I guess, like, when you're casting a big net like that where - you know, the complications to me would seem like if you grew up with people - this idea of, like, I grew up with people. These are my friends. These are my brothers. Like, we grew up together, and so, yeah, we hang out. But that seems a bit different than necessarily, like, you know, the mob, where there is a very strict hierarchy and structure. Like, I guess what I'm asking, like, what does it mean to be a gang?

CARMICHAEL: No, that's a good question. And it's one that we really asked and puzzled over a lot in Season 1 of LOUDER THAN A RIOT. And in our reporting for that season, we talked to this gang expert, an academic. Her name was Babe Howell. And she really broke down for us this difference between gangs in the more organized sense and really just neighborhood crews that are way more unorganized and typically driven by juveniles who, she says, studies show are really more likely to grow out of that youthful criminal phase unless they get caught up in the system. And the thing about RICO when it's applied to rap stars - you know, a lot of times the rappers are not the ones accused of the most egregious crimes. But because of their celebrity and sometimes the belief that they're bankrolling the whole operation, they are often painted as the proverbial kingpins.

RASCOE: The other thing that kind of makes these hip-hop arrests unique is that a lot of times the lyrics and the music videos that they make - like, their hit songs from Young Thug are being used as part of the indictment. And that's, like, a growing trend where hip-hop is being used - instead of just as art, it's being used as, no, this is evidence that they are in a gang, that they're all together and that they're engaging in criminal activity.

MADDEN: I mean, this is a trend that's really loud right now in the public consciousness, but it's actually a practice of criminalizing hip-hop or just Black music in general that's a pattern that stretches way, way far back in America's history. But when it comes to rap lyrics being put on trial, just last year, the state of Maryland's highest appeals court ruled that the lyrics are admissible as evidence in criminal cases. And this decision stems from a murder case conviction where the defendant was sentenced to 50 years. And his lyrics, which he rapped over a jail payphone three weeks before the start of his trial, were taken by the judge as a criminal confession.

And meanwhile, in New York, there's a bill being introduced to actually limit the use of rap lyrics being used in criminal cases as evidence, but this bill is still being debated on in New York Senate. And in 2019, the Supreme Court refused to hear a lyrics on trial case, despite a lot of big-name artists like Chance the Rapper, Meek Mill and Killer Mike all pushing for it. So decisions like these continue to set legal precedents. And because it happens almost exclusively in hip-hop, it's almost impossible to see it through a lens other than a racial one.

RASCOE: It just seems to me, like, when it comes to rap lyrics, like, rap lyrics are taken literally, in a way, versus, you know, this - like, if you rap about - just because you rap about selling drugs don't mean you actually sell drugs. Like, I could rap about selling drugs, but - because I watch "The Wire," that don't mean I actually sold drugs, right? Like...

CARMICHAEL: Right.

RASCOE: I mean, sometimes people are just fronting, or they're telling stories that they see with other people, right?

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. I mean, it really speaks to another thing we talked about a lot in the first season, which is the fact that the artistic merits of hip-hop are not judged in the same way that they are for other genres. You know, it's not seen as creativity or even genius as much as it's seen as just autobiography. Like, how can people be making these stuff up, particularly Black kids? They got to just be rapping what they know. It's something that really strikes at the different, more prejudicial ways that Black art and Black music are judged in this country, you know?

MADDEN: Judged and devalued and stigmatized. Yeah.

RASCOE: Yeah. And you all - you know, talking about that Season 1 of LOUDER THAN A RIOT, you chronicled the rise of rapper Bobby Shmurda and then his indictment and arrest right as he was getting big. And he spent years in prison and was caught up in a case where the prosecution said that he was a part of a gang and that maybe he was, like, the kingpin. Can you talk about some of the similarities to what happened to Bobby Shmurda and what seems to be happening to Young Thug and Gunna right now?

CARMICHAEL: Here's really the dichotomy that we're living in right now. Basically, we have a music industry that rewards artists for exploiting their connection to the streets. And then, on the other hand, we've got a justice system that's dead set on criminalizing those same connections, you know, whether they're real connections, whether they're dramatized like we were saying before. So for young people who are seduced by the limelight and really oftentimes just looking for a way out of the streets, rapping about where you're from and the things that you or your people used to do in the streets - it has the possibility of earning you millions of dollars a year or years in prison and, if you're an icon like Young Thug, you know, maybe even both.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDEN: Now, Atlanta and hip-hop was already reeling from this indictment, but after we spoke with Ayesha, more news broke. That New York bill we talked about that'd restrict rap lyrics being used as evidence in criminal cases - it passed in the Senate this week. Now it's up to the New York State Assembly to make it law. And Lil Keed, another YSL record signee, died unexpectedly at just 24 years old shortly after the charges came down. He wasn't included in this indictment, but before his passing, Keed was one of the first to post about it on social media, writing, YSL is a label and a way of life, not a criminal organization.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDEN: LOUDER THAN A RIOT investigates the relationship between hip-hop and the criminal justice system in Season 1. So if you haven't listened to it or it's been a while, definitely go back and check that out. Season 2 of LOUDER THAN A RIOT will be coming your way next year, and you best believe we'll continue to dig into the hard questions that face our industry and our culture.

LOUDER THAN A RIOT is hosted by me, Sidney Madden, and Rodney Carmichael. Our senior producer is Gabby Bulgarelli. Our associate producer is Sam J. Leeds, and our production assistant is Jerusalem Truth. Our editor is Soraya Shockley, and our engineer is Gilly Moon. And shout-out to the bigwigs, Soraya Mohamed, Keith Jenkins and Anya Grundmann. Original music by Kassa Overall and Ramtin Arablouei. Our digital editor is Jacob Ganz. Our fact checkers are Candice Kortkamp and Julia Wohl. Special thanks to Ayesha Roscoe, Isabella Gomez and Hadeel Al-Shalchi from Weekend Edition. From NPR Music, I'm Sidney Madden. And this is LOUDER THAN A RIOT.

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