Mac Phipps: Rap Lyrics On Trial : Louder Than A Riot "A bullet in your brain." What right does the justice system have to decide whether a rapper's words are imagination or intent to kill? In this continuation of Mac Phipps' story, police pressure witnesses, while prosecutors use the artist's own lyrics to build a murder case against him. And Mac isn't the first: From a century-old folk tune to Ice-T's "Cop Killer," we examine the history of policing Black creativity to reveal a phenomenon that's become common practice in courtrooms — using lyrics as Exhibit A.
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Lyrics On Trial: Mac Phipps (Pt 2)

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SIDNEY MADDEN, HOST:

A warning before we begin - this podcast is explicit in every way.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, HOST:

Last time on LOUDER THAN A RIOT...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CHAD PHIPPS: He was always, like, the best freestyler in the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I NEED WHEELS")

MAC PHIPPS: (Rapping) I need wheels.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RAJ SMOOVE: And the next thing we knew, Mac getting signed to No Limit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COPS AND ROBBERS")

M PHIPPS: (Rapping) Keep supplier's name confidential. The crooked cops...

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

RAJ SMOOVE: No Limit was really kind of doing, like, you know, just New Orleans gangsta music. It was a bit of an odd peg for Mac.

MCKINLEY PHIPPS SR: We did a few shows at the Club Mercedes.

C PHIPPS: People were getting a little rowdier. And the next thing you know, it was like a pow.

M PHIPPS SR: I had, like, four policemen - three with pistols, one with a shotgun - come running, charging, running at me, talking about, get on the ground, get on the ground, get on the ground.

SHEILA PHIPPS: Me, in my head, I'm thinking, well, OK, they're going to take him down to questioning, and they'll probably - he'll probably be home in about five, 10 minutes, you know, 'cause we know he didn't do anything.

UNIDENTIFIED DETECTIVE: The person to be interviewed is a McKinley J. Phipps. What kind of performing do you do?

M PHIPPS: I rap.

UNIDENTIFIED DETECTIVE: You're a rap singer?

M PHIPPS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDEN: Mac's sitting in a jail cell. He's been charged with the murder of Barron Victor Jr. Even though someone else confessed to shooting Barron that night, Mac was the one headed to court to fight for his freedom.

CARMICHAEL: But to understand what Mac was about to be up against next, we've got to break down the history of rap lyrics being weaponized - not by rappers dissing each other or talking slick on the mic, but by the criminal justice system policing Black creativity. Ice-T, who's probably best known today for playing a cop on "Law & Order: SVU," see, he knows more about this than probably anybody. That's 'cause back in the day, one of his songs triggered law enforcement all across the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COP KILLER")

BODY COUNT: (Singing) Cop killer.

CARMICHAEL: Yep, "Cop Killer" from Body Count, the metal band that Ice-T started fronting in the early '90s. And, man, in 1992, the backlash over this song about one man's revenge fantasy to kill corrupt police officers, man, it was huge. Both President George H.W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle condemned it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COP KILLER")

BODY COUNT: (Singing) Cop killer - fuck police brutality.

CARMICHAEL: News headlines were blowing up all over the place, questioning if rap was out of control.

MADDEN: Never mind the fact that this song was unmistakably heavy metal.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, just the fact that Body Count's lead singer was a known rapper, that was enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Hey, hey, ho, ho - crime war has got to go.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Many of these people are policemen from around the country who want Warner Bros. Records to yank the album "Body Count" off store shelves.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: New York is not alone in its distaste for Ice-T.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: But police groups in Texas called for a boycott of all products made by Time Warner.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: And the governor of Alabama requested that the song be banned from store shelves.

MADDEN: Mmm hmm. Pressure from record label shareholders, boycotts from police unions, even death threats? It became too much. Ice-T told Time Warner to pull the record off the shelves. And mainstream America's fascination with and fear of gangsta rap, it reached an all-time high.

CARRIE FRIED: The public outcry was, you know, just enormous.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRIED: People were losing record contracts, boycotts were happening, and concerts were being canceled.

MADDEN: That's Carrie Fried. She's a psychology professor at Winona State University in Minnesota.

FRIED: And it was just really apparent that it wasn't really just the content of the songs; people were reacting to these songs in a way that they weren't in other sort of genres or contexts.

MADDEN: Back in '92, Carrie was just starting in on her graduate studies, and she was about as far from an Ice-T fan as you can get. But something about the backlash to "Cop Killer," it jogged a memory from her childhood.

FRIED: My parents always listened to folk music, and there were always songs about killers and glamorizing them, you know, even creepy songs about people who killed sheriffs and sheriff deputies. And no one thought anything of it, you know? It was just a song.

CARMICHAEL: She thought about one song in particular, a folk song that was a hit from the early '60s - "Bad Man's Blunder" by The Kingston Trio.

FRIED: Three dorky white guys wearing plaid shirts and playing guitars. And they had this song about a guy who, just 'cause he's feeling in a bad mood, he goes out and shoots a deputy sheriff. And it's this weird, lighthearted little song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD MAN'S BLUNDER")

THE KINGSTON TRIO: (Singing) Well, early one evening, I was rolling around. I was feeling kind of mean. I shot the deputy down.

FRIED: They just kind of popped into my head when I was hearing all these negative reactions to the rap music of - why, as a kid, did no one object to me listening to this song?

MADDEN: So Carrie, she created a simple study.

FRIED: The lyrics were just - they were stuck in my head, so I typed them up. Early one evening, I was strolling along. I was feeling kind of mean. I shot a deputy down. Stroll on home. I went to bed. I laid my pistol up under my head. And then, honestly, I Xeroxed (ph) the thing - probably, on departmental budget, I wasn't supposed to.

MADDEN: On half of the pages Carrie wrote, this is a rap song; on the other half, this is a country song.

FRIED: And the next page I just had a series of questions - is this song offensive? You know, should we ban this kind of song? Would you let your kids listen to this kind of song? Does this kind of song pose a danger to society?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD MAN'S BLUNDER")

THE KINGSTON TRIO: Bang. You're dead.

FRIED: When subjects thought the song was a rap song or when they associated it with a Black artist, they were significantly more likely to say this poses a danger, you know, we should ban these kinds of songs. I don't want my kids listening to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRIED: If you said it was a country song or they were associated with a white artist, by and large, people didn't have a problem with it.

CARMICHAEL: I'm Rodney Carmichael.

MADDEN: I'm Sidney Madden. From NPR Music, this is LOUDER THAN A RIOT.

CARMICHAEL: Where we trace the collision of rhyme and punishment in America.

MADDEN: In this episode, we look at a phenomenon that's become common practice in courtrooms all over the country, the use of rap lyrics as state's evidence to convict the artist of crimes.

CARMICHAEL: And for Mac, it becomes the ultimate irony when his imagination leads to his incarceration.

M PHIPPS: For me, it was just like, damn. I done lived my whole life trying to stay out of jail so I can pursue my dreams. And here it is, my dreams were being used against me in court.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: Mac's trial began on September 10, 2001, just one day before the Twin Towers fell in Manhattan. And Aaron Zachmeier, he was a 26-year-old reporter for the Slidell Sentry News at the time when he got a call about the case from a prosecutor in the DA's office.

AARON ZACHMEIER: He considered it a really high-profile case and one that was going to be very easy for his office. I don't remember the exact words. But he said, the defendant is named Mac, the Camouflage Assassin - slam-dunk.

CARMICHAEL: He says everybody in town was talking about the case.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZACHMEIER: And they seemed to view it as New Orleans spilling into their quiet, calm communities. Slidell liked to think of itself as a sleepy, little town where you could escape from the chaos of New Orleans.

CARMICHAEL: The trial took place in the St. Tammany Parish courthouse.

ZACHMEIER: The courtroom was packed. It was a low, dingy, 1960s building. I have a picture in my head of wood paneling.

CARMICHAEL: Mac's brother, Chad, remembers how much support Mac had packed inside that courtroom.

C PHIPPS: My uncles and aunts and grandparents and parents and elderly people who - most of them were ministers and people in the church. And we were sitting, like, five or six rows back in the courtroom.

CARMICHAEL: First day was jury selection.

ZACHMEIER: They threw out anyone who had family members who had been arrested. They threw out anyone who expressed any kind of negative opinion about police. It ended up being an all-white jury.

CARMICHAEL: Not exactly Mac's peers. But even in the position he was in, Mac was prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt.

M PHIPPS: I don't think that these people were just like, you know, we're white, he's Black. We hate him, so we're going to send him to prison. No. I just think that some people tend to have such a favorable - it's kind of like a child-like favorability of the police that I don't think they think - hell, I'm going to just be raw. I don't think that some people believe the police make mistakes.

CARMICHAEL: Now, representing the state was a prosecutor named Bruce Dearing.

ZACHMEIER: He was aggressive. He was really confident in himself.

CARMICHAEL: The prosecutor laid out the case against Mac in the state's opening argument, reenacted here from court transcripts.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Bruce Dearing) Murder, murder. Kill, kill. Pull the trigger. Put a bullet in your head. Those are some of the lyrics that this defendant chooses to rap when he performs. This is the self-proclaimed camouflaged assassin.

ZACHMEIER: He pushed the assassin moniker over and over and over and over again. That was his main argument.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Bruce Dearing) At the conclusion of this trial, I am going to ask you to rip the camouflage from this assassin and reveal him as the killer that he is.

MADDEN: Mac couldn't believe what was happening.

M PHIPPS: For me, it was just like, damn. I done lived my whole life trying to stay out of jail so I can pursue my dreams. And here it is, my dreams were being used against me in court. And I felt kind of played because I was like, wait a minute, wait a minute.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. And remember, Mac, he switched his whole style up when he got with No Limit.

M PHIPPS: I used to rap about all kinds of stuff. I used to rap about trying to save the world. I used to rap about all types of stuff growing up, you know? And that was actually my favorite type of music. What they would call today conscious hip-hop or whatnot, that was my favorite type of hip-hop. That's what I used to do. That's what I was doing before I signed with No Limit. I didn't seem to be able to break through back then with that. But here, I start making a type of music that's selling. And all of a sudden, this music is being used against me in court. And it's like, god damn.

CARMICHAEL: Also in that opening statement, the prosecutor, Bruce Dearing, he introduced the confession of Thomas Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS WILLIAMS: And all of a sudden, there was - a fight broke out.

CARMICHAEL: And as we told you in the last episode, days after Mac's arrest, his security guard confessed to shooting Barron Victor in self-defense.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAMS: I reacted and fired.

CARMICHAEL: I reacted and fired. But the prosecutor argued that Thomas Williams was a career criminal and unreliable.

ZACHMEIER: He was a felon, so he couldn't be trusted. They said that he was taking the fall for Mac, which seemed strange to everyone. Why would anyone do that?

CARMICHAEL: We reached out to prosecutor Bruce Dearing for an interview, but he declined.

MADDEN: Now, key to the state's case was the testimony of two eyewitnesses. The first witness the state called was Nathaniel Tillison, cousin of Barron Victor Jr. Nathaniel testified that on the night of the shooting, he and his cousin got to Club Mercedes around 11:00 p.m. They played some pool, then started dancing, when a fight broke out. Barron was in the middle of it when, according to Nathaniel, Mac came from the side and shot his cousin in the shoulder. How do you know it was the defendant that did that? The prosecutor asked. Because I looked dead in his eyes to see him, Nathaniel said.

CARMICHAEL: The second eyewitness key to the case against Mac was Yulon James. And she's the young nursing student who had administered CPR to Barron on the night of this shooting.

ZACHMEIER: Couldn't forget Yulon because she was hugely pregnant, and she was terrified up on the stand.

CARMICHAEL: At the time of the trial, Yulon was 25 years old. She'd been at Club Mercedes that night because her boyfriend was a promoter of the show. He'd been working with Mac. She knew Mac, too, which made it all the more damning when she told the jury that when the fight broke out, she glanced up and saw Mac in the crowd. Here's a reenactment from the transcript, starting with Assistant DA Bruce Dearing.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Bruce Dearing) Could you tell us anything that you would recognize as being perhaps significant?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Yulon James) Yeah, I seen a gun on him.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Bruce Dearing) And did you see anything come out of that gun?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Yulon James) Sparks.

ZACHMEIER: Pregnant, with a tiny voice, seemingly being led by the prosecutor. I don't think she was doing a good enough job for his taste, and so he really seemed to be coaxing her into answering questions the way he wanted them answered.

MADDEN: So with no murder weapon and no physical evidence, the crux of the state's argument was about his lyrics.

ZACHMEIER: I think they leaned on the stage name, the Mac the Camouflage Assassin, because it was so easy. And I imagine they thought that it was an easy way to scare the jury, to turn a person into a monster. He did a good job.

MADDEN: Mac's defense tried to counteract the prosecution's attacks.

ZACHMEIER: A lot of Mac's defense was based on who he was as a person. He hadn't been in trouble with the law. His lawyer said that he often read poetry in cafes. That seemed like laying it on a little thick.

M PHIPPS: As crazy as this may sound, I tried to emotionally detach myself from the trial. So when I was sitting in trial, I was in attorney mode. I was, like, actually sitting there listening and whispering to my lawyer the things I wanted him to ask him next.

CARMICHAEL: But in the end, Mac's lawyer never called one single witness to the stand during the trial.

M PHIPPS: He was like, listen - our strongest piece of evidence is the videotape confession, and the prosecutor has already presented it. And he was like, so the jury has already heard our strongest piece of evidence. He said, so at this point, all you can do is take away from it.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, Mac's lawyer said the worst thing that could happen is if they call witnesses whose stories don't line up with the confession.

M PHIPPS: He said, because if we put witnesses up there and they don't line up with what this guy is saying on the videotape confession, then we blow the case. And he thought that that was the right strategy. He thought that was going to get a not-guilty verdict without presenting any witnesses.

CARMICHAEL: Mac's lawyer presented his closing argument, and I'm going to quote from it here. "The state's theory is akin to Frank Sinatra shooting an audience member in a Vegas nightclub. It makes no sense. Shoot and kill someone in front of his mother? That is their theory."

MADDEN: Meanwhile, the state did everything they could to make Mac look as gangsta as possible. In his closing argument, Bruce Dearing leaned back into Mac's lyrics again.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Bruce Dearing) And this defendant is the same man whose message, again, is murder, murder, kill, kill, you F with me, you get a bullet in your brain.

MADDEN: Mac's lawyers object and try to argue for a mistrial when the state uses his lyrics. They get denied.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Bruce Dearing) You don't have to be a genius to figure out that one plus one equals two.

MADDEN: As the jury weighed the evidence, Mac's family waited.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZACHMEIER: There were lots of family members singing religious songs, embracing each other, crying. It was very emotional.

MADDEN: Remember - Mac was charged with second-degree murder, but the judge gave the jury the option to convict on a lesser charge of manslaughter if the crime was, quote, "committed in sudden passion or heat of blood." Inside, the jury deliberated until close to midnight.

CARMICHAEL: They had to weigh the evidence - the state's eyewitnesses and Mac's lyrics on one hand, versus Mac having no criminal record and another man confessing to the crime on the other.

MADDEN: When the jury came back, the verdict was guilty of manslaughter.

M PHIPPS: I was just numb. I was crying, like - I don't think I ever cried like that in my life. I just dropped my head, tears flowing down my eyes. It's like I was a kid again.

MADDEN: The jury count was 10 to 2.

CARMICHAEL: Now, usually every juror needs to agree on a guilty verdict. But in 2001, Louisiana was one of only two states left in the country where jury verdicts did not have to be unanimous.

What went through your mind when you heard the verdict being read?

S PHIPPS: Disbelief. I was angry 'cause I shouted out in the court, my son didn't do this. I kept screaming, my son didn't do this. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it. But they didn't Mac, so, you know, you almost want to shake their head and tell them, you know, he's not really like that. But, you know, how can you change people's perspective of somebody when they're only going by what they hear?

M PHIPPS: I was like, maybe he'll give me 10 years - maybe.

CARMICHAEL: When it came time to sentence him, the judge said, after reviewing all the sentencing guidelines, I sentence the defendant to 30 years hard labor.

M PHIPPS: Shit - that man said 10 years hard labor. My mouth just flew wide open, like wow. I was 24 years old at the time. I was like, damn.

M PHIPPS SR: I was just trying to hold everybody together. Oh, my children was crying. I said, my son didn't do this. The person who did this is going to walk away a free man while my son has to bear his burden. You give somebody who don't have no police record 30 years? I couldn't figure that out. I definitely couldn't figure that out.

CARMICHAEL: Here's Mac's brother Chad again.

C PHIPPS: The whole thing, looking back at it, was a sham trial from beginning to end. I was young at the time. I didn't know much about the courtroom. I thought there was actually justice in the courtroom and if you're not guilty, they set you free 'cause, in my mind, at that time, I thought justice will prevail. I was sadly mistaken.

M PHIPPS: I couldn't believe it. And I went back to the jail when they brought me back and I was just angry. Man, I was angry with God more than anything. I was angry. I was like, dude, how could you do this to me? And I think that night I didn't believe in anything. I don't believe in people no more. I didn't believe in the system anymore. I didn't believe in nothing. Everything was just dark. And I remember hearing the same song that I heard in the squad car on my way to the court. The same song was playing on the radio. And that was "Lifetime" by Maxwell.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFETIME")

MAXWELL: (Singing) I can let my life pass me by or I can get down and try, work it all out this lifetime - work it on out this time. I can let it all pass me by...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG WARPING)

CARMICHAEL: Mac's been in prison for 20 years, but witnesses are still coming out of the woodwork to tell a different side of the story than the prosecution did.

MONIQUE HART: My name is Monique Hart. I am from Slidell, La.

CARMICHAEL: Just a couple of months ago, Monique posted on Mac's official Instagram that she was at Club Mercedes the night Barron Victor Jr. was shot. Monique says the events of that night, they've never left her.

HART: It just will pop up in my mind sometimes. Just scroll through, like, Instagram, and I just seen a picture and that brought it back up again.

MADDEN: This is the first time Monique's speaking out publicly. She had never met Mac before the day of the Club Mercedes performance. So when he showed up at her friend's house before the show, she was surprised. But it wasn't just that.

HART: The strange thing is, the entire time he was there, he was reading a book. And I remember asking him if he drank or if he smoked and, you know, just - and he said, no. And he did not, like, look up from that book except for - to explain to me some parts of the book (laughter). And that's the only thing that I remember about him. I'm like, he - he was, like, a righteous-type person. He was quiet. And, you know, you would think, OK, a rapper - people place rappers in this box and they, you know, stereotype them. And that wasn't him.

CARMICHAEL: Like Monique, Jamie Wilson was at Club Mercedes that night, too.

So what did you know about Mac at the time? Were you a fan?

JAMIE WILSON: Yeah. I mean, I was a fan of anybody No Limit and probably any rapper. I was 19 (laughter). I went to a lot of concerts, just like I attended that one.

MADDEN: Jamie and Monique don't know each other. But, like Monique, she was at the club that night to have fun with her friends.

WILSON: And my mom gave me permission to go. And me and my best friend who lived across the street, we put on matching skirts. And we went (laughter).

HART: Our town is small. So any time there was anything going on, everybody in town would go.

WILSON: The club was like - it wasn't exactly a hole in the wall for Louisiana, but compared to things that I've seen now, definitely a hole in the wall. You know, the stage was small. And the bar was in the middle. And you can surround the bar, like, around - on the dance floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HART: Everybody was kind of packed in the club. And it was just locals.

WILSON: We had just gotten drinks. And the song was ending. We had missed most of it trying to get a drink. I remember we were complaining about that. And Mac started to come off of the stage. And I got excited, you know? I was like, he's coming down to meet the people, you know? He's going to shake somebody's hand, you know? I'm 19. And he came through the crowd. And he was like, how are you guys doing? And I'm the dork, so I'm like, fine. And then it's like, seconds later, it felt like - or maybe a minute or two - the shots rang out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILSON: I remember he was still right there, like, as this is going on. And so he kind of, like, get down, you know? And I ducked. And, you know, I was freaking out on the floor. I'm like, oh, my God. Are we going to die at the concert? Like, oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

CARMICHAEL: Monique says she was also next to Mac.

HART: The thing that has never left my mind was we were within arm's reach when the gunshots started.

WILSON: Somebody that was laying there with us, they was like, be cool. So I just got still, you know? And then as Mac was getting up, he drew a weapon and was like, where's my mom? Where's mama? He was asking, where's his mama?

HART: We ran out together. So there was no way - if gunshots are behind me and he's within arm's reach of me, there's no way (laughter) he could - he should've never been involved or even considered as a suspect.

CARMICHAEL: Do you remember what he looked like? Or could you see his hands or any of that?

HART: Well, no. But if his body is - if I can see his body and the gunshots are behind me and we're close to the door, I mean - (laughter) we were at the exit. The gunshots were closer up towards the other side of the club.

CARMICHAEL: Outside, people were scattering with the quickness.

HART: Everybody just ran and got in their cars.

CARMICHAEL: Did you think about going to the police with your story?

HART: Yeah. So when I called, I didn't get a call back.

CARMICHAEL: What did you tell the police when you called?

HART: That I was at the event, and I just wanted to make a statement.

MADDEN: After that, Monique says rumors started spreading about witnesses being threatened by the police. So she decided to leave it alone. As for Jamie...

WILSON: I naturally went home and told my mom. I told her the whole story from top to bottom. And then the next day, I remember being sleep. And she was like, wake up or whatever. She was like, you have to go down here. And I'm like, down where, you know? And she was like, you have to tell them what happened. The same thing that you told me last night, that stuff is on the news.

MADDEN: Jamie's mom drove her down to the station where they waited for a detective to take her statement.

WILSON: They made us wait a while. I remember because I was just nervous the whole time.

MADDEN: She says the detective did anything but put her at ease.

WILSON: I've never felt so small before in my life ever. And I had high self-esteem. I was modeling at the time. There was, you know - then he made me feel so small. I was like, I'm telling the truth. And I remember I kept turning to my mom. I was like, Mom, you know, I'm telling the truth. I told you the same thing that night. I remember telling her I didn't want to be there.

I think he called me a liar at one point. I know he used liar or you lied or something to that nature. And from there, it just made my heart flutter. And then I remember us both at one point feeling disrespected. And that's when she finally said what I wanted her to say - let's go. It's like he was upset that we existed, that there was someone that is saying no to everything that they're saying. You know, it's like you can tell that they just - they didn't want to listen. They just didn't want to hear.

MADDEN: Jamie didn't give up, though. She reached out to Mac's lawyer, said she'd be willing to testify. And that's when things really started going left. She started to get pulled over constantly by the police.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILSON: They used to search my car and stuff. And I'm like, what are you - I'm 19 years old. I'm in school. What are you doing? Like...

MADDEN: One cop stayed on her.

WILSON: It wasn't until he pulled me over for what is now about the fourth, fifth or maybe sixth time. And when he was letting me go, he said, you wouldn't be getting pulled over if you would just mind your business.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILSON: And I was like, what are you talking about? He was like, aren't you a witness for, you know, whoop de whoop, de whoop? But, yeah, he was the person that gave me a hint as to what was going on. I was present every court date. I heard, like, a lot of the back-and-forth about his music and the lyrics in his music. And - but I was never, ever to take the stand.

CARMICHAEL: What did you - so man, you sat through the whole trial. What did you think about how it was going?

WILSON: I was hurt by it. We walked out a lot of times.

CARMICHAEL: Why?

WILSON: I cried a lot of times just being young and just know right from wrong. And then that, you know - it was just - I was still young, so wrong was so wrong to me, you know? It's like - and it was breaking my heart.

HART: I wonder a lot, you know, about the individuals who know because I know that the prosecutors - I know that a lot of them know deep down in their heart, even the jurors - I feel like your conscience has to talk to you. So I question if they believe in karma, if they believe in God. Do you have a son? Do you have a husband? How would you feel if this was your husband or your child? I often just question what happens to people like that. You know? You threw somebody's life away, and - yeah.

WILSON: And I feel like they just wanted to nail the rapper, you know, just get the big fish. Why throw - why keep the trout and you can get a bass?

MADDEN: Now, Jamie and Monique, they tell a completely different story than the two eyewitnesses that testified at trial, the ones who claim they saw Mac shoot Barron Victor Jr.

CARMICHAEL: And one person who spent more time than anybody trying to set the story straight is crime writer David Lohr. You've been hearing his recorded interviews with Mac throughout this episode. David even tracked down Yulon James, the young woman who was pregnant when she took the stand and said that she was there at the club and saw sparks fly out of Mac's gun. But in 2013, she actually recanted her testimony in a sworn affidavit.

DAVID LOHR: And at the time, she said, she felt very pressured to say that she had saw something. She said she initially told the police, well, no, you know, I didn't see what happened; I have no idea. And they were like, well, you were right there. You know? You had to have seen something. And they kept pressuring her and pressuring her. And even right up until trial, they threatened to charge her if she didn't testify. They said we'll file an obstruction charge, you know, against you if you don't get up on the stand and say what we want you to say. And at the time - she was pregnant as it was going to trial, and she claims the DA told her at that time, he was like, you know, if you don't get up there and testify, you're going to have that baby behind bars.

CARMICHAEL: Now, we've reached out to Yulon James ourselves, and even after all of these years, she told me personally that she's scared to say any more than she's already said. The baby that she was pregnant with when she took the stand back during Mac's trial is a young adult now, and she worries about what can happen to people who speak out in Slidell.

David started hearing stories like this time and time again, people like Yulon who said they were pressured to cooperate.

LOHR: It was just kind of a crazy thing because if you look at all the different people in this case that they wanted to testify, almost every single one of them claims they were threatened with an obstruction charge if they didn't get up on the stand or didn't make a statement that the DA wanted them to make. You know, taking these individually, you don't think a lot of them because, you know, a lot of people will claim something. But, you know, when you look at this many people telling you the exact same thing - people who don't know each other, who don't even communicate with each other anymore - you know, there's something to it.

MADDEN: The more David learned about Mac's case, the more he started to question Mac's guilt. Let's run it down. Mac had no criminal history, and there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Like, take the guns presented at trial.

LOHR: They weren't the murder weapon.

MADDEN: And that's including the one Mac said he was carrying at the club and lied to investigators about.

CARMICHAEL: And if there were questions about whether or not Mac was guilty, David was going to run them down.

LOHR: My goal from the get-go was to methodically go through all of the reports and try to track down and speak with every single person, you know, that the authorities had spoken with.

MADDEN: When it came to the state's other eyewitnesses, like the victim's cousin, Nathaniel Tillison, David says there was a problem. From statement to statement, Nathaniel's versions of events kept changing.

LOHR: All three stories were different. But if you look at the stories, each one, you know, placed Mac more and more as the person responsible for the crime.

CARMICHAEL: So what was really going on? And why all this witness intimidation for one conviction? What David started to believe, it wasn't unique to Mac's case. And what he discovered was this is how the DA Walter Reed and the sheriff Jack Strain operated all the time.

LOHR: What they liked to do here is hold a sledgehammer over your head. You know, the DA will say, hey - you know what? - we're going to seek life imprisonment for what you did, or you could admit you're guilty and do 10 years. It's like they'll do anything that they can to get a conviction. And everybody knew St. Tammany Parish. You know, you get arrested for a crime in St. Tammany Parish and you're poor or you're Black, you're screwed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDEN: In one of their recorded prison phone calls, crime reporter David Lohr asked Mac about his lyrics being read out loud in court.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOHR: How big of a role do you think your music played in securing your conviction by the prosecution?

M PHIPPS: Well, I think what the music did was just add, I would say, credibility to their theory. So I think what they were looking for was some indication that I had...

AUTOMATED VOICE: This call is subject to recording and monitoring.

M PHIPPS: I didn't have any criminal history for them to look into, so I guess, you know, when you're picking for - when you're grasping for straws, I guess they just was like, well, we have to find some indication that this person has a dark side. So that's when they turned to the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASSASSIN NATION")

M PHIPPS: (Rapping) Assassin Nation, the enemy lives (ph). Cocking back (unintelligible) till he breathless. I'm on some next shit, fulfill a death wish. I'm back for (unintelligible).

ERIK NIELSON: Across the country in an alarming rate, young men of color are having their rap lyrics introduced as evidence in criminal cases.

CARMICHAEL: Now, Erik Nielson studies African American literature and hip-hop culture, especially as it intersects with policing.

NIELSON: It is, time and time again, leading to convictions, often when there is little other evidence. This is unfair. It is racist. And no other musical form - no other fictional form, musical or otherwise, is used like this in courts.

CARMICHAEL: Erik's been called by defense attorneys to testify in dozens of trials all over the country, especially when rap lyrics get introduced as evidence.

MADDEN: And although he didn't work on Mac's trial back in the day, still, Erik says this case is one of the most egregious he's ever seen.

NIELSON: They relied on Mac Phipps' fictional persona as they tried him. They conflated the author with the character. And they did so intentionally, talking about him as the assassin, the Camouflaged Assassin, which is, by the way, is a name he got from kung fu movies. They started bringing in his lyrics - murder, murder, kill, kill.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MURDA, MURDA, KILL, KILL")

M PHIPPS: (Rapping) Murder, murder, murder, murder, kill, kill, kill, kill.

CARMICHAEL: Murder, murder, kill, kill - of course, that's from the song of the same name. But the second half of the line the prosecution quoted - you fuck with me, you get a bullet in your brain - well, that's from a completely different song called "Shell Shocked." The verse quoted, it's not even about Mac. It's about Mac's dad, Vietnam vet McKinley Phipps Sr. But peep this - the prosecution even changed the lyrics to make them sound self-incriminating. See, Mac actually never raps the words, you fuck with me, you get a bullet in your brain. In fact, the prosecutor switches up the whole context. Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHELL SHOCKED")

M PHIPPS: (Rapping) ...What you got, niggas. Big Mac, that's my daddy. Riding dirty, straight-up soldier - you heard me? Ain't no secret, one of the realest niggas I creep with. Since I was...

CARMICHAEL: That's my daddy, he says. See, he's personifying his father's experiences as a veteran of the war in Vietnam. And then 10 seconds later...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHELL SHOCKED")

M PHIPPS: (Rapping) Fuck with me, he'll give you a bullet the brain, mane. My nigga Wapp...

CARMICHAEL: You fuck with me, he'll give you a bullet in your brain.

NIELSON: Not only did they cherry-pick lyrics, which is common in this - right? - just take a line and forget about all of the context. But in this case, they actually took lines from different songs, changed them somewhat and then put them together as if they had come from the same song and in doing so dramatically changed the meaning of the lyrics. And that was problematic because what we know is that the character that Mac presented in his lyrics had nothing to do with the person who authored them.

MADDEN: Not only that, the trial was taking place in September 2001, literally the week of the 9/11 attacks. If you looked at the front page of The Times-Picayune on September 19, you'd have seen a large, grainy photo of Osama bin Laden, a report about the Bush administration's newly named war on terror. And then, a single headline at the bottom left corner reads "Rapper Identified As Killer At Concert."

We talked about this with one of Mac's lawyers, Kevin Boshea. And he says this is one of the most difficult trials he's ever been through.

KEVIN BOSHEA: It certainly hangs as a part of me. But as far as doing anything different, no, I cannot see a more difficult scenario to try a homicide case with in America.

CARMICHAEL: And here you have the prosecutor constantly referring to Mac as an assassin. Mac's team actually tried to get the case dismissed because the characterization - man, it was just too raw. But the judge overruled it.

BOSHEA: All he did, however, was set the table for every other prosecutor in America to put rap culture on trial at every single opportunity. I cannot begin to tell you how many appeals I've handled since where the defendant gets convicted not because the evidence is so strong but because of what he decided to put in his social media, in his rap videos, in her rap videos, whatever.

CARMICHAEL: This inherent bias against rap and the image that it conjures is becoming a common weapon in a prosecutor's arsenal.

ANDREA DENNIS: Almost daily, we continue to learn of new cases.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, Andrea Dennis, she knows all too well.

DENNIS: I am a professor of law at the University of Georgia Law.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, she's also a former assistant federal public defender and co-author, along with Erik Nielson, of the book "Rap On Trial: Race, Lyrics, And Guilt In America."

DENNIS: Our research at present, we believe, has only revealed the tip of the iceberg.

CARMICHAEL: Since 2006, they've found more than 500 cases from almost every state. Man, that's a lot of rappers catching cases. But we ain't just talking professional rap stars when it comes to this stuff.

DENNIS: In the vast majority of these cases, it's your average, ordinary young Black or Latino man, just ordinary citizens.

CARMICHAEL: You're jotting down lyrics in your journal? That could be used against you. Posting verses for the Gram? Oh, that's admissible, bruh.

Now, Andrea says there's a bunch of different ways that the government uses lyrics against defendants at trial.

DENNIS: One set of cases are those that are considered to be autobiographical or confessions.

CARMICHAEL: Lyrics can even be used to prove gang membership or to show that someone is of dangerous or bad character. Sometimes the state argues that the actual lyrics are a threat; the lyrics themselves are essentially a crime. And, of course, there are cases like Mac's.

DENNIS: In which the government says that the lyrics are indicative of an individual's intent or mindset or motive to commit the crime.

CARMICHAEL: Now, this trend, according to Erik Nielson, it's not disappearing anytime soon. As a legal tactic, it's just too effective at persuading juries.

NIELSON: I think one of the reasons why people are willing to read those lyrics as autobiography is because they map to commonly held stereotypes about the inherent criminality of young Black and young Hispanic men. And so I think it becomes very easy for people to hear the lyrics and think to themselves, yeah, that sounds about right.

I also think that many people have a difficult time believing that these young men are capable of learning and mastering a highly sophisticated, complex art form. And so if you don't see them as artists, then it's difficult to read their lyrics and hear figurative language, you know, to hear metaphor. But if you begin with the assumption that these young men are not bright enough to produce something that's this sophisticated, then the fallback, the obvious position from there is, oh, well, they're just rapping about things they've done.

MADDEN: Now, let that assumption sink in - that these men are not sophisticated enough, not creative enough.

CARMICHAEL: OK, but can I play devil's advocate for a minute, Sid?

MADDEN: Uh, the devil is a lie, but go off.

CARMICHAEL: OK, so here's the paradox, right? I mean, the thing is that there really is an expectation a lot of times within hip-hop that you be about what you rap about. That's an expectation that no artists in any other genre face. Am I right?

MADDEN: Yeah, but the line between artistic license and authenticity when it comes to using rap lyrics is one that prosecutors love to blur for a jury, especially a jury that holds inherent bias against the genre in the first place. But this idea that all rappers are basically just criminals who go in the booth and dry snitch on record, it's really so absurd that it's almost laughable.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KEY AND PEELE")

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: (As character) First things first, I do not care that you're a multiplatinum selling rapper, Gun Rack.

CARMICHAEL: That's Keegan-Michael Key from Comedy Central's "Key & Peele" playing a suit-and-tie detective interrogating Jordan Peele, who's in the role of a stereotypical gangsta rapper named Gun Rack.

MADDEN: Yeah, the sketch is called Rap Album Confessions.

CARMICHAEL: Yep, and it's exactly as advertised.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KEY AND PEELE")

JORDAN PEELE: (As Gun Rack, rapping) I killed Darnell. Yeah, I shot him with my nine. I shot him nine times, 9 p.m. on the dime. And by the way, it was November 9.

CARMICHAEL: Now, he's practically rapping how the murder went down, word for word, on tape, and the detective knows he's got him. But then Gun Rack looks at the detective with a straight face and says, that don't mean nothing; I got a vivid imagination.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KEY AND PEELE")

KEY: (As character) The name of the album is "I Killed Darnell Simmons."

PEELE: (As Gun Rack) It's a concept album.

KEY: (As character) A concept? That's a picture of you, a picture of you. And behind you is Darnell Simmons' body.

MADDEN: Now, this is comedy. But the reality is, hip-hop's creative license is being revoked by the justice system every day. No other genre is plagued or policed by the expectation that artists walk it like they talk it.

CARMICHAEL: Or rap it or sing it.

MADDEN: Exactly. Like Ice-T, it's freedom of speech; just watch what you say.

NIELSON: This is not a First Amendment issue with racial implications; it is a racial issue with First Amendment implications. It's a new permutation on a very, very old dynamic. The tactic of introducing lyrics as autobiography in order to put somebody in prison, that's a new tactic. But the fact that we see rap being targeted and Black expression being targeted, that is nothing new. Black expression sends shivers through white America still, it seems.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, Black folk have always been feared and fetishized as outlaw figures in popular culture. It predates rap, goes back at least as far as the legend of Stagger Lee.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAGGER LEE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Now, Stagger Lee, he was a bad man. He wanted the whole 'round world to know.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, Stagger Lee, the original thug of American folklore. Long before Tupac got it tatted across his torso.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAGGER LEE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Now, Stagger Lee, Lord, and Billy Lyons...

CARMICHAEL: Now, as the story goes, Stagger Lee Shelton was a St. Louis scalawag who murdered a man in 1895 for snatching his Stetson hat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAGGER LEE")

MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT: (Singing) He said, Stagger Lee, Stagger Lee, please don't take my life. Says, I got two little babies and a darling loving wife. He's a bad man, oh, cruel Stagger Lee.

CARMICHAEL: Eventually, he died in prison. But mythologized in song? Man, he became the trickster god of the 20th century.

(SOUNDBITE OF FATS DOMINO SONG, "STAGGER LEE")

CARMICHAEL: And the song "Stagger Lee" would end up being recorded over 400 times by folk and blues artists.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAGGER LEE")

FATS DOMINO: (Singing) I was standing on the corner...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAGGER LEE")

LLOYD PRICE: (Singing) When I heard my bulldog bark...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAGGER LEE")

TINA TURNER: (Singing) He was barking at two men who was gambling out there in the dark.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAGGER LEE")

THE ISLEY BROTHERS: (Singing) Stagger Lee threw a seven. Billy swore that he threw eight.

NIELSON: And it's told in rhymed form from the first-person perspective. It's violent.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAGGER LEE")

PACIFIC GAS AND ELECTRIC: (Singing) They shot him three times in the shoulder, Lord, shot him three times in the side.

NIELSON: It's funny at times.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STACK A LEE")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Stack A Lee turned to the jailer. He said, jailer, I can't sleep.

NIELSON: It's hypersexual.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAGGER LEE")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) You arrest the girls for turning tricks, but you're scared of Stagger Lee.

NIELSON: It reads like gangsta rap.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK SNAKE MOAN")

SAMUEL L JACKSON: (As Lazarus Redd, singing) I said, say, motherfucker, do you know who I am? He said, hell naw, nigga. I don't give a got damn.

NIELSON: But it's over a hundred years old.

MADDEN: Take all that, and mix in the urban fiction of Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim.

NIELSON: The urban underworld where hustlers and pimps reigned supreme - and so that that's another artistic tradition that rappers are drawing from.

MADDEN: Pull in some inspiration from the Black arts movement on one end and blaxploitation films on the other.

NIELSON: The idea is to say, you know, what you're seeing here is really just, you know, in some cases, centuries of evolution of an art form. And so you need to start from that perspective and understand that. Even if individual rappers can't tell you all of the antecedents of their art, they exist. And it's a very, very rich, complex tradition that they're drawing from.

MADDEN: A rich, complex tradition that hip-hop is adding to - that's now used in court against them.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, and this is a tradition that Mac stepped into at No Limit. And even as he leaned into those gangsta tropes, there was still a spirit of resistance in his music. You hear it a bit in his first No Limit album. But man, it really starts to cook on the follow-up "World War III." Take the song "Battle Cry."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BATTLE CRY (TOMORROW)")

M PHIPPS: (Reading) But if I gotta, I'm ready, cuz. (Singing) Why do we live if we're born to die? Why do we live if we're born to die? Tomorrow, why do we live if we're born to die? Tomorrow...

CARMICHAEL: Man, that's some new millennial blues right there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BATTLE CRY (TOMORROW)")

M PHIPPS: (Singing) Tomorrow - oh, you too cute...

CARMICHAEL: Almost 20 years after "The Message," you hear Mac echoing the same pain, the same reality. It's like nothing's changed.

NIELSON: In any moment that you have, particularly a young Black man, not only embracing stereotypes and taboos but doubling down on them, which is really what gangsta rap often is - even if you have that in the most sort of trite, recycled form, I do think that at some level, that is still performing a kind of resistance.

CARMICHAEL: And that resistance, it flows through almost every form of Black American art, from work songs heard on the plantation to the prison camp.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUTRO")

M PHIPPS: (Singing) Oh, murder, murder, murder - murder, murder, murder, kill, kill, kill - kill, kill, kill. When they bury me, bury me a soldier - bury me a soldier - right beside my steel - right beside my steel. I can't wait until the battle - wait until the battle...

CARMICHAEL: It's been 20 years since the shooting at Club Mercedes. But Jamie and Monique, man, they're still haunted by that night. And remember, these are the two young women who say Mac did not fire a shot that night. But for them, time hasn't been enough distance. They both moved away from St. Tammany Parish. Monique, she left the state of Louisiana altogether.

HART: I left because it was just too common for Black men, boys to be put in jail. I don't know any Black man related and non-related, it's very few that I know that have not been through that system. I just - I didn't want to go through that with my son. If my - you know, if a teenager is caught with - doing something that teenagers do, like underage drinking or just something minor, maybe smoking marijuana, you don't know want to know they're going to be shipped off for 10 years for that. I think that's every parent's worst fear besides having to bury their child.

WILSON: I just had my first son, who I am in - I'm terrified. I'm terrified for my son. I pray about that now. I'm starting - I started in the womb, asking God to cover him because I see how easily it can happen to anyone, and my son ain't no different.

CARMICHAEL: Next time on LOUDER THAN A RIOT, we discover who the real criminals of St. Tammany Parish are, and we look at where the fight for Mac's freedom stands today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOHR: Were you surprised when that appeal got denied?

M PHIPPS: Actually, with every appeal that we filed, I really believed that this was the one. Now...

AUTOMATED VOICE: This is a call from an offender at a Louisiana Department of Corrections facility.

M PHIPPS: That hope is really what has kept me going. But at the end of the day, I want to be free more than anything in this world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDEN: This episode was written by Matt Ozug, Rodney and me, Sidney Madden.

CARMICHAEL: Michael May edited this one. It was produced by Matt Ozug and Dustin DeSoto...

MADDEN: ...With help from Adelina Lancianese, Sam Leeds and Babette Thomas. Our engineer is Josh Newell.

CARMICHAEL: Senior supervising producers are Rachel Neel and N'Jeri Eaton.

MADDEN: And shout out to the big wigs - Steve Nelson, Lauren Onkey and Anya Grundmann.

CARMICHAEL: Original music by Kassa Overall - dope artist. Y'all definitely should check him out. Additional scoring by Ramtin Arablouei - appreciate you, folk.

MADDEN: Our digital editor is Jacob Ganz. Our fact checker is Will Chase.

CARMICHAEL: And thanks to everybody who lent their time and expertise on this one, especially Andrea Dennis and Erik Nielson. They wrote the book on this.

MADDEN: Hit us up on Twitter. We're @LouderThanARiot. Rate and reviews on Apple Podcasts. And to follow along with the music you heard in this episode, check out the LOUDER THAN A RIOT playlist on Apple Music and Spotify now. And if you want to email us, it's louder@npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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