ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
After 21 years behind bars, the Louisiana rapper McKinley "Mac" Phipps got news this week that may lead to his early release from prison. He was a rising star in 2000 when he was convicted of manslaughter. Phipps has always said he's innocent. On Monday, the state of Louisiana recommended clemency for Mac Phipps. His case now goes to the governor.
NPR Music's Sidney Madden and Rodney Carmichael have done a lot of reporting on this case for their NPR podcast, Louder Than A Riot, and for our show. And they're with us once again. Good to have you both back.
SIDNEY MADDEN, BYLINE: Thanks, Ari.
RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Hey, thanks, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Start by reminding us who Mac Phipps is.
CARMICHAEL: Well, growing up in New Orleans, Mac was basically a local hip-hop prodigy. Then in 1996, he signed with one of the biggest rap labels of the '90s, which was Master P's No Limit Records. But just about four years later, Mac ended up being arrested after a shooting that took place at a nightclub he was performing at just outside of New Orleans.
MADDEN: Right. But there were a couple key factors that we investigated throughout the course of our reporting that proved how unlikely it was that Mac was actually the one who pulled the trigger that night. First, there was no physical evidence linking him to the shooting. And someone else confessed to the crime, but that confession got disregarded by the prosecution.
SHAPIRO: For people who haven't listened to the podcast, you spend a lot of time talking about how Mac's music led to his conviction.
MADDEN: Mmm hmm. It's important to note that Mac had no criminal record before any of this. And even in his early days of music, Mac described himself as more of a conscious rapper, as someone who raps about social activism and sociopolitical issues. But when he signed to No Limit Records, he kind of adopted a more gangsta rap persona, and he earned the nickname Camouflage Assassin. And the prosecution built majority of their case on demonizing Mac's persona. And they even used his own lyrics against him.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MURDA, MURDA, KILL, KILL")
MAC PHIPPS: (Rapping) Murder, murder, murder, murder - kill, kill - it's real. You cross me wrong...
MADDEN: Yeah. On Louder Than A Riot, we asked Master P, who signed Mac, about how the prosecution basically used Mac's persona against him.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
MASTER P: Like, this guy shouldn't be incarcerated. I mean, when you talk about assassin, we talking about verbal assassin. We talking about how he killed people with his lyrics. And I think the system mixed that up with what he is as an entertainer.
SHAPIRO: So tell us about this clemency hearing more than 20 years after he was locked up.
CARMICHAEL: Yeah. This hearing was really emotional. It happened over Zoom, of course, but his mom, his dad and his wife were all in attendance. And, you know, Mac, he's kept a really super clean record during his entire sentence. Even the assistant DA who was present representing the victim's family called Mac a model offender.
MADDEN: So now that he has this clemency recommendation, it goes to the desk of Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards. And we reached out to the governor's office, and they told us they review these cases every few weeks. So the timetable's still up in the air. But if Edwards signs it, Mac is released immediately, but he'll still spend the next 10 years of his life on parole.
SHAPIRO: So to be clear, this would not be an exoneration. What has he said about what he plans to do if he's released? Is he going to go back into music?
CARMICHAEL: Well, that definitely came up in the clemency hearing. And actually, one of the pardon board members asked Mac that question, you know, specifically if he's planning to return to hip-hop.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TONY MARABELLA: That business that you're in has a flair for getting people into trouble or at least getting them put under suspicion. Do you follow what I'm saying?
PHIPPS: Yes, sir. I agree.
MADDEN: (Laughter) You hear that coded language, Ari?
SHAPIRO: Yeah, flair for getting people into trouble.
MADDEN: Exactly. Just like we've been investigating this whole series, it's about the criminalization of hip-hop, which you hear so plainly right there. And Mac, he kind of deflects in his answer. In his response, you can hear him trying to distance himself from the spotlight that was used against him all that time ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PHIPPS: Well, I think at 43 years old, my approach to, you know, that business is pretty different. I think I've gotten a little too old to be the out-front man at this point.
MADDEN: And as Mac says, he's different, and also hip-hop is different. The hip-hop landscape has changed so much since he first went away.
CARMICHAEL: Yeah. And even though Mac's not the first rapper to come home from prison, you know, with a career to revive, you know, most artists of his generation, they've had, like, 20 years to build a career. Whereas Mac, his career has basically been on ice that entire time.
MADDEN: Mmm hmm. So for now, even aside from the music, Mac's number one priority is clearly his freedom.
SHAPIRO: That's Sidney Madden and Rodney Carmichael of NPR Music. Their podcast on hip-hop and incarceration is called Louder Than A Riot. And they're dropping a new bonus episode soon that goes into more details of Mac's clemency. Thank you both for your reporting.
CARMICHAEL: Thank you so much, Ari.
MADDEN: Thanks for having us.
(SOUNDBITE OF KASSA OVERALL'S "VISIBLE WALLS")
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