Exclusive: Former No Limit Rapper Mac Phipps On Clemency, Freedom : Louder Than A Riot After 21 years in prison, Mac Phipps has been recommended for clemency, which could mean early release. As we reported in our first season, Mac was convicted in 2001 of manslaughter, for a crime he has always said he did not commit. Now, we follow the former No Limit rapper as he navigates the clemency process — and for the first time, we get to talk with Mac himself. What does justice mean after he's spent half his life in prison? And does he plan to ever return to the stage?
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21 Years and 1 Day: Mac Phipps (Exclusive)

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SIDNEY MADDEN, HOST:

Heads up before we begin - this podcast is explicit.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, HOST:

Hey, y'all. It's Rodney.

MADDEN: And Sidney.

CARMICHAEL: And we're back for a special episode of LOUDER THAN A RIOT to catch you up on the case of McKinley "Mac" Phipps, one of the artists we profiled in Season 1 of our show, who spent the last 21 years incarcerated.

MADDEN: Mac was an artist on the No Limit label when he was convicted of manslaughter in connection to a nightclub shooting back in 2000, a crime he and many others say he didn't commit.

CARMICHAEL: But you got to know Mac's story in order to understand why his conviction was so tragic. And it all starts with Mac as a hip-hop prodigy growing up in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I NEED WHEELS")

MAC PHIPPS: (Rapping) I need wheels.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAC PHIPPS: I never let go. That's word to my niggas in the ghetto. Keep it real doesn't mean you got to let the TEC blow.

RAJ SMOOVE: Mac was kind of like New Orleans' version of Nas - his flow, the intelligence that he had behind his rhyme. You know what I'm saying? Like, it was very thoughtful. It was very profound. And the next thing we know, Mac getting signed to No Limit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHELL SHOCKED")

MAC PHIPPS: Oh, I hit the stage with a vengeance, quoting a murder sentence.

MASTER P: Mac was probably one of the best artists ever came to No Limit.

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

MAC PHIPPS: (Rapping) When I murder, murder - murder, murder - kill, kill - kill, kill - shit's real - shit's real - on the battlefield - on the battle field.

RAJ SMOOVE: He was talking about murder, murder, kill, kill. Like, dude, like, what you doing?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCKINLEY PHIPPS SR: Did a few shows at the club Mercedes and...

C PHIPPS: It was getting later in the night. People were getting a little rowdier.

MAC PHIPPS: I remember the fight broke out on the dance floor.

C PHIPPS: And the next thing you know, it was like a pow.

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

MAC PHIPPS: I rap.

UNIDENTIFIED DETECTIVE: You a rap singer?

MAC PHIPPS: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED DETECTIVE: They saw you with a damn gun in your hand shooting people.

MAC PHIPPS: Nah, I didn't shoot anybody, sir.

MASTER P: I know that his music got him incarcerated. But they got the wrong guy.

AARON ZACHMEIER: I think they leaned on the stage name, Mac The Camouflage Assassin because it was so easy, an easy way to scare the jury, to turn a person into a monster.

C PHIPPS: The whole thing, looking back at it, was a sham trial from beginning to end.

MAC PHIPPS: Thirty years hard labor. My mouth just flew wide open, like, wow.

C PHIPPS: I thought justice will prevail. I was sadly mistaken.

MAC PHIPPS: Being out of here and being able to live my life again, to be outside these walls and not be bound by the limitations of this place, that'll be justice for me.

CARMICHAEL: Now, our episodes on Mac's case last year uncovered corruption, witness tampering and, of course, rap lyrics on trial. And when we ended our investigation, it was looking like Mac could end up spending another nine years in prison.

MADDEN: But at the beginning of this year, after LOUDER THAN A RIOT wrapped our season, something changed. After 21 years in prison and one denied appeal after the other, Mac was granted a new hearing. That could mean early, almost immediate release.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TONY MARABELLA: I understand that both you and your lawyer deny that you were the person that actually committed this crime. Is that right?

MAC PHIPPS: Yes, sir.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: In this bonus episode of LOUDER THAN A RIOT, Mac Phipps gets to make his case again. But this hearing right here, it has nothing to do with guilt or innocence.

MADDEN: It really doesn't have to do with justice at all. It's about going home for the first time in 21 years, even if it doesn't mean clearing his name - not yet.

CARMICHAEL: And for the first time ever, after all our requests to interview Mac were denied by the warden time and time again, we finally get to talk to Mac himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: Man, I'm excited to talk to you. Thank you for calling me.

MAC PHIPPS: Aw, man, appreciate it. And I think I'm kind of excited, too. I'm kind of calm. But I'm excited.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: I'm Rodney Carmichael.

MADDEN: I'm Sidney Madden.

CARMICHAEL: And this is a special episode of LOUDER THAN A RIOT.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANGELIQUE PHIPPS: McKinley was actually the one that filed it, on his own, without an attorney, which was pretty impressive (laughter).

MADDEN: That's Angelique Phipps, Mac's wife, walking us through Mac's appeal for clemency, a type of petition which would commute his sentence and grant him early parole.

A PHIPPS: It's really kind of an arduous application process. Like, it's 18 to 25 pages, I think.

MADDEN: Mac turned in his application way back in 2018, which was actually his second time filing for clemency. Mac's first request in 2016 was denied. So the stakes, they were high this time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDEN: In order to even submit a application, you got to jump through a whole lot of hoops beforehand. You need to maintain a clean disciplinary record for two years. That means no write-ups. And the law even required Mac to post a classified ad in the parish where he was convicted to alert that community that he was applying for clemency in case anyone wanted to contest it. But Angelique says Mac was dedicated and deliberate, despite her own anxieties.

A PHIPPS: It was frustrating 'cause at any point during that process, they can say no. Like, they can change their mind.

CARMICHAEL: Mac's dad, McKinley Phipps Sr., he's felt the same frustration.

MCKINLEY PHIPPS: Throughout all these years, all these appeals and everything, I'm used to bad news. You know, I'm used to getting rejected, so I've got to basically numb myself. I try to not even think about where it was at.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, and McKinley Sr., I mean, he has reason to be numb. As a Vietnam vet raising six kids with his wife in New Orleans' Third Ward, he was finally getting to watch his oldest son's career take off when Mac's conviction and the last two decades washed all that away.

MCKINLEY PHIPPS: These years, it actually changed me. I was, like - I was a drunk at one time. I smoked cigarettes incessantly - I mean, pack after pack after pack. I don't smoke anymore. I barely - I drink occasionally, but I barely drink because I said I wanted to be around to be able to do whatever I could to help him.

CARMICHAEL: But then in early January of this year, an update came through that gave Mac, Angelique and the whole family some hope. Mac's clemency hearing was finally scheduled. He'd go before the pardon board on February 22, 2021.

A PHIPPS: I told him the night before - I said, you know, as weird as this may sound, it's my life in the balance, too, tomorrow. And I didn't sleep a lot. To be honest, I was up and down, up and down, up and down.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDEN: Now, like most everything in the time of COVID-19, this hearing happened via Zoom. And since pardon hearings are open to the public, we were able to watch it all live. Board members, they were all in their own little squares with the exact same virtual background - wood paneling, framed by an American flag and Louisiana state flag and a government crest on the wall, almost like they were trying a little too hard to make it seem like a normal hearing.

CARMICHAEL: But in a sense, it is normal, right? I mean, these kind of hearings happen every day. And in the past, in order to watch one of them, we would have had to travel all the way to Louisiana, go through security and sit in the room. So it's really part of the legal process that most people never get to see.

MADDEN: What makes it abnormal to me is having it on Zoom makes it so widely accessible. Anybody can watch, which in turn makes it feel even more invasive. Anyway, Mac's fourth on the docket out of nine decisions the pardon board will make today.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

SHERYL RANATZA: All right. Thank you, everybody, for being with us this morning. So now, Mr. Phipps, let me ask you to introduce yourself. Tell us your name and your DOC number.

MAC PHIPPS: I'm McKinley Phipps. My DOC number is 445656.

RANATZA: OK, so let me introduce the pardon board to you, Mr. Phipps...

CARMICHAEL: Of course, Mac is there, too, wearing prison blues. And in the background, a warden sits at a table behind him drinking coffee.

MADDEN: And as we're watching the hearing, we're trying to read the room, look at their faces for what isn't being said. Mac's parents, Sheila and McKinley Sr., they're sitting at his mother's art studio in New Orleans. They look pretty calm, stoic even, like they're experts in tempering their own expectations after all these years of disappointments. Behind them are large portraits that Sheila's painted. And then Angelique, she's in another little square. And by comparison, she looks like she's on the edge of her seat. She takes a nervous sip of water and purses her lips as the hearing begins.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

RANATZA: All right, Mr. Phipps, you're here this morning. And before the pardon board, you're asking for clemency. You're asking for a commutation of your sentence.

CARMICHAEL: A commutation - that means Mac is asking for immediate parole eligibility based on his good behavior in prison. But let's be clear. A commutation is not the same thing as being exonerated for a crime he didn't commit. And the board's not supposed to be retrying his case. Basically, a clemency hearing, like Angelique and Mac's dad told us, is similar to a parole hearing, just happening ahead of schedule. The board reviews all the same docs and asks all the same kind of questions - has this person served enough time? Does their good behavior demonstrate that? Is this person safe enough to be back on the street?

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

MARABELLA: Mr. Phipps, I've got a few questions I'm going to ask you. How old are you now?

MAC PHIPPS: Forty-three.

MARABELLA: OK. And you've been in prison for how long?

MAC PHIPPS: Twenty-one years and one day.

MARABELLA: I understand that...

MADDEN: One of the board members, Tony Marabella, who most recently served as a drug court judge, he was assigned to do a deep dive into Mac's case. He's the one asking most of the questions, and he presents the advantages and disadvantages of Mac's potential release to the rest of the board. And the thing to remember in this situation is that the board has all the power. They can ask Mac pretty much anything they want. They start off with a more expected line of questioning - about Mac's behavior in prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

MARABELLA: Tell what you've done while you've been in prison. Tell me some of the programs that you've done while you've been in prison.

MAC PHIPPS: Well, I've taken quite a few programs. I've done anger management. I've done parenting. I've taken college courses, got a HVAC degree. I've been a mentor - certified mentor...

MADDEN: But then there's a couple exchanges, specifically between Mac and Tony, that feel out of the ordinary in a very specific way.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

MARABELLA: Now there is a picture in your file. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about.

MAC PHIPPS: In my file - yes, sir.

MARABELLA: A photograph of you.

MAC PHIPPS: I'm aware of it.

MARABELLA: You're aware of that picture.

MAC PHIPPS: Yes, sir.

MADDEN: That picture in his file is from 2019, when fellow Louisiana rapper Kevin Gates paid a visit to the prison where Mac was serving time, along with his friend Corey Miller, better known as former No Limit label mate C-Murder. Kevin, he wanted to meet them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARABELLA: Let's talk about that a little bit. Did you do anything? Did you do anything wrong?

MAC PHIPPS: No, sir. I was actually at work. And a warden called my job and told me to go to the building. I had never met the young man before. I had actually met him that day. And I was basically informed that I needed to go to that building. And that's where I went.

MADDEN: Kevin, Mac and C, they all sat down at a table at the prison's visitation room, started chopping it up. Somebody snapped a picture of them. And while Mac and C are turned to the camera, Kevin Gates whips out racks of cash and stands in front of his face. That photo ended up on social media. And because it's against the rules to take that much cash in as a visitor, Kevin got banned from the prison. It became the only red flag in Mac's file.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARABELLA: While it's true you may not had done anything wrong, you were in a position where you could get in trouble for...

MAC PHIPPS: Yeah.

MARABELLA: ...Being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

MAC PHIPPS: I agree.

CARMICHAEL: See, I disagree. I mean, this whole thing, even this being on Mac's record at all, like, how is the prison you're sentenced to ever the wrong place at the wrong time?

MADDEN: Right, especially when the warden told Mac to go meet with him.

CARMICHAEL: See, this answer shows how precarious a position Mac is in. I mean, right or wrong, you definitely don't want to find yourself disagreeing with the people who have the power to set you free or send you back.

MADDEN: And check out where the line of questioning goes next.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARABELLA: So tell me, do you intend to go back into the entertainment business?

MAC PHIPPS: In some capacity, yes.

MARABELLA: OK. 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?

MAC PHIPPS: Yes, sir. I agree.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDEN: At this point, I notice Angelique in that little square. She's pursing her lips. And she turns her head to the side for a second. She kind of flips her hair. Clearly, she's frustrated with this line of questioning. Talking to her later, she told us that was a total curveball.

A PHIPPS: That part was a little scary, to be honest.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. But in the moment, Mac played it cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAC PHIPPS: Well, I think, at 43 years old, my approach to, you know, that business is pretty different. And, you know, my capacity is probably more on the musical side of it rather than just, you know, being out front and entertaining. I think I've gotten a little too old to be the out-front man at this point.

CARMICHAEL: It's interesting, though, right? I mean, the same way his music was used against him 21 years ago, you can hear it happening again in this hearing.

MADDEN: Yep. You can't make this up. This is part of the criminalization of hip-hop that shaped so much of Mac's trial back in the day and so much of our first season. It's an indictment of rap. It shows you, those who have the power, they're on the same time they've always been on.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. Mac, man, he practically has to distance himself from the music in order to be fit for release in the eyes of the law. After the questioning is through, people can speak in support or opposition of Mac's clemency. His mom, Sheila, dad, McKinley Sr., and wife, Angelique, they all speak to his good character. Mac's warden says he's a, quote, unquote, "model offender."

MADDEN: And get this, even the current assistant district attorney, who was there on behalf of the family of the shooting victim and who represents the same office that put Mac away all those years ago, he didn't have a bad thing to say about Mac.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTHEW CAPLAN: I'll state the obvious. He is not an ordinary offender. He is obviously intelligent and thoughtful. He is very clearly a talented musician. He's got no prior criminal record. He's got no write-ups in prison. You know, to the extent that a model offender exists, he is one.

CARMICHAEL: Now, finally, Mac Phipps, a wordsmith by trade, is given the chance to speak. But he can't really find the words. He even gets a little choked up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RANATZA: Mr. Phipps, is there a statement you'd like to make before we vote?

MAC PHIPPS: What's weird is I've actually thought about what I would say for about 10 years. And I just want to say that I thank y'all for this opportunity. No matter how it goes. That's it.

RANATZA: All right. Thank you, sir.

MADDEN: Normally, this is the time that each of the five members on the board would, one by one, vote on commuting Mac's sentence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RANATZA: Mr. Marabella, are you prepared to vote?

MARABELLA: Madam Chairman?

MADDEN: But that doesn't happen. Tony Marabella, the board member who had asked Mac about his music career, he interjects.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARABELLA: I'd like to move to go into executive session.

RANATZA: All right. Do we have a second? Wait a second by Mr. Jones. So we have a motion and a second for executive session. Could we get a roll call vote, please?

UNIDENTIFIED CLERK: Ms. Ranatza?

RANATZA: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED CLERK: Mr. Rochet?

MADDEN: So you hear the roll call that's going on? Well, right after that, the Zoom call that was filled with all these faces from the board, Mac, his family...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARABELLA: Yes.

RANATZA: OK, folks, we'll be in executive session to discuss confidential matters. We'll be back shortly.

MADDEN: ...It goes blank.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: And just like that, the public session goes private.

A PHIPPS: When they call the executive committee, it - my heart dropped. It really did. You know, it's like, here's this person that has done absolutely everything right. His character speaks for himself. You know, when they had that pause, I was like, oh, my God. Here we go.

CARMICHAEL: Now, we have no way of knowing what the board talked about, but there's a lot of different possibilities - the photo with Kevin Gates, Mac's future plans in hip-hop or even the fact that he's maintained his innocence this entire time.

MADDEN: Then there was also the elephant in the room, something that never explicitly came up in the hearing - all the reporting on Mac's story. It was hard to imagine that our deep dive into Mac's case and all the reporting from David Lohr and others over the years totally flew under the radar of the board.

Let's recap. First, there was the obvious prejudicial use of Mac's lyrics in trial. We reported on how the St. Tammany district attorney, the guy whose office prosecuted Mac, he later went to prison for corruption himself. We also uncovered allegations of corruption in the local sheriff's department. Now, the sheriff who ran the office at that time denies those allegations. And then there were new witnesses who claim Mac is innocent. So yeah, we wondered if the board went confidential to talk about just how denying Mac's clemency might look in light of all of this.

CARMICHAEL: The board ends up convening in private for five minutes, five nerve-wracking minutes, especially for anybody close to Mac.

MCKINLEY PHIPPS: Please, Lord, just let us get something positive out this situation. That's what I was thinking.

A PHIPPS: Please, God, don't let these people say no because it won't make any sense at all.

CARMICHAEL: And then, just as fast as their little Zoom squares disappeared, the board members returned.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

RANATZA: All right. I think we're all back in the room - looks like it - so we'll reconvene our regular session. And we'll vote, and we'll start with Mr. Marabella.

MARABELLA: Thank you very much, Madam Chairman. Mr. Phipps, I have reviewed your record.

MADDEN: Now, it looks like the board is ready to vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

MARABELLA: Mr. Phipps, it would be my vote today to grant you immediate parole eligibility.

MADDEN: One vote for yes - one board member down. Then the second vote is yes, too.

CARMICHAEL: But then the third board member, he almost seems like he's on the fence.

JIM WISE: I am saying this - there's a lot of stuff there that I looked at, and I just didn't know exactly what was going on. I'm not here to retry the case, but today, I consider you very lucky.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. This is one of those moments that really stands out for Angelique.

A PHIPPS: Lucky for spending 21 years behind bars? Really? I mean, it's frustrating. You know, it's frustrating.

MADDEN: But ultimately, the third board member, he votes yes, too.

CARMICHAEL: And the last two - yes and yes. Mac gets something he's never gotten before - a unanimous vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

RANATZA: So on your behalf, we'll make the recommendation to Governor Edwards that your sentence be commuted and that you'd be immediately parole eligible. Good luck to you, sir.

MAC PHIPPS: I thank you all, and thank you all for this opportunity.

MADDEN: And this is the moment the tension finally lifts from the faces of Mac's family. Now, pending approval from the governor and a hearing to iron out the terms of his 10-year parole sentence, it's looking like Mac will finally be released. Over Zoom, we see Mac's head drop to his hands. His face goes just out of the frame.

A PHIPPS: It felt like relief. You know, it was like - I was trying to hold it together. I saw McKinley, you know, starting to tear up.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

RANATZA: Good luck to you. Thanks, everybody, for your participation today. And I think that concludes our business at Lafourche. We'll adjourn from there. It's 11:17.

A PHIPPS: I saw his dad just kind of lose it, and then that - it was a wrap for me.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. His dad, man - that's the little Zoom square I just could not keep my eyes off of.

MADDEN: I know, right? His dad is sobbing. Mac's mom embraces him as two decades of despair, disappointment and fear, they start to melt away.

MCKINLEY PHIPPS: I was actually crying tears of joy. You know, that came from my soul because at last I couldn't believe that all of these people agreed to give my son a chance to return back to normality. But just as I cried tears for my son, I cried tears for Barron Victor, too, the kid that got killed. I - you know, I couldn't imagine how his parents must have felt.

MADDEN: How long do you feel like those tears have been welled up inside you?

MCKINLEY PHIPPS: Oh, 21 years, to be exact - 21 years, to be exact.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Transitional work program - this call will be recorded and subject to monitoring at any time. Thank you for using IC Solutions. You may begin speaking now.

MAC PHIPPS: Hello.

CARMICHAEL: Hey, Mac. Thanks for calling back.

For the last few weeks, Mac's been on work release, serving out his sentence at the LaFourche transitional work program, where he does construction work at a local shipyard. So we had to arrange a time to talk to him, enroll in the department of corrections system and have him call us.

Well, congratulations, first off, man. I mean, I don't even know if that's the right word after 20 years, but I feel like something needs to be said in terms of the hearing last week.

MAC PHIPPS: Oh, man, I appreciate it. And it was actually 21 years and one day, to be exact.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, I remember you saying that in the hearing. Like, have you always been aware of how many - down to the day, how long you've been in the whole time?

MAC PHIPPS: Unfortunately, so. Yeah.

MADDEN: When we first started working on LOUDER THAN A RIOT, one of the first stories we really dug into was Mac's. He's been in prison for so long, and we dove so deep into his story, it's like we really got to know this man. We've tried multiple times in our reporting for years to talk to him, but we were always denied. So this is the first opportunity we ever had to hear about Mac from Mac.

CARMICHAEL: About a week after the hearing, we got that phone call. And, man, I wanted to talk to Mac about so much stuff, but we started with the hearing. I wanted to know if he felt like he had to hedge his answers, especially the questions that seemed to put Mac's relationship with hip-hop back on trial again.

MAC PHIPPS: No, no, not at all, not at all. I literally answered the questions the way I would have answered them any - 20 years ago. It's just - I was so nervous because, I guess, for me it was more, you know, as I've expressed before, just my family, you know, being there. And over these years there have been so many disappointments, so many disappointments. And I, you know - I just was like, man, I couldn't bear another disappointment.

MADDEN: While Angelique was losing sleep the night before, Mac lost something else. He couldn't find the speech he'd written years ago in hopes that this day might come.

MAC PHIPPS: It was weird because I've been preparing all these years what I would say at the hearing. But when that time came, I kind of froze up. I didn't know what to say. It was like - it was kind of overwhelming.

CARMICHAEL: So what was your reaction when the vote came down?

MAC PHIPPS: Hell, I don't know if I remember hearing the last two people voted 'cause I was already in tears.

CARMICHAEL: Did it feel real in that moment?

MAC PHIPPS: Yeah, it kind of felt surreal, as you would say. I was like, so this is actually happening.

MADDEN: Surreal, kind of like how he couldn't believe the sentence he received all those years ago.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. And remember how he talked about it in that old interview? That's always stuck in my head. Just listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MAC PHIPPS: Angry, I was angry with God more than anything. I was angry. I was like, dude, how could you do this to me, you know? And I think that night I didn't believe in anything. I didn't believe in people no more. I didn't believe in the system anymore. I didn't believe in nothing. Everything was just dark.

CARMICHAEL: I had to ask him about it.

You talk about being mad at God after the judge handed you your 30-year sentence on that very day.

MAC PHIPPS: Right.

CARMICHAEL: How did you restore your faith and how has your relationship with God changed since the day that you received that sentence?

MAC PHIPPS: Now it's weird because, you know, my faith is something that I rarely ever talk about, but I would say this. It was restored, like, right after that. I was upset that night. You know what I mean? It's like one of them kids. Like, I threw my little fit. Ah, I'm mad. I'm mad with you. Then it was like, all right, I understand now. I'm cool. 'Cause it's, you know, just like, I always believed that the best was yet to come. You know, I always have faith that good things are always around the corner from me. And it's been that way throughout my life.

CARMICHAEL: When you say you understand, what was it that you came to understand so quickly even after all of this?

MAC PHIPPS: One of the things that stuck out in that moment was like, OK, if you was willing to accept, like, the highs of life - you know, I traveled the world; I did a lot of things at 22 years old that a lot of people dreamed of - I was like, who am I not to accept the lows? You know, I just got to deal with it. And that's basically the conclusion I drew, and I rolled with it.

CARMICHAEL: You know, I think the hardest thing for me to understand about how you've carried this is also what feels like probably one of the most admirable things about you. And that's the responsibility that you've taken for the environment that led to the death of Barron Victor Jr. that night in Club Mercedes, you know, even while maintaining your innocence.

MAC PHIPPS: Right.

CARMICHAEL: Why do you feel the need to take so much personal responsibility for how that happened and for what happened?

MAC PHIPPS: At the end of the day, you know, this young man lost his life. You know, there's a family that's grieving. And, you know, they're - and many of them have - probably have some ill feelings toward me. And those feelings are justified because, you know, I wasn't able to prove that I didn't, you know, commit this crime in court. This whole journey I wanted to prove to that young man's family, like, listen; I really didn't care your son. In fact, I didn't even meet him.

For me, it was more of like a personal thing. Like, what responsibility do you have in this situation, McKinley? - is what I had to ask myself. And I was like, well, man, there are some decisions that were made that I think if they were made differently, this whole - the whole sequence of events that eventually led to this young man's demise wouldn't have happened.

CARMICHAEL: Are you talking about just the physical environment in terms of the club where you held the event? Or are you also talking about the music you made and the kind of energy it attracted?

MAC PHIPPS: No, no, not the music at all. Just like - I should've had real security guards in there. That's the bottom line. I should've probably hired the cops to be there, and I didn't. You know, I made some decisions that - those type of decisions is what I believe led to an out of control environment.

MADDEN: Remember, Mac's brother and Thomas Williams, the man who later confessed to shooting Baron Victor Jr. - they were his hired security that night. But Mac saying he wish he'd hired cops is just so ironic, considering what we found out about the sheriff's office in St. Tammany Parish at the time. So how much control would he have had if it went down that way?

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, and on top of that, that out of control environment that he's describing - it was exactly what his former label boss, Master P, was pretty much urging him to avoid.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONEY GETS")

MASTER P: Yo Mac, nigga. The only reason I'm telling you this, nigga, because I care about you, nigga. I wanna see you ball 'til you fall, nigga, but you know what? You know what come with motherfuckin' money and fame? Motherfucking enemies and niggas hatin'. You see, you rich now, nigga, but dead men can't spend no fucking money.

MADDEN: But it's one thing to warn someone of danger. It's another to blame them for the dangerous things that are happening around them.

CARMICHAEL: I don't know if you got to hear our interview with Master P and what he had to say about your case but, man, it really surprised me.

MASTER P: He'll tell you. I love him, but I told him. I said, if you get caught up in anything, then I'm not coming to see you. I'm not dealing with that. That's on you. And he was like, all right, boss, I'm gone. And that's how it went.

CARMICHAEL: Were you surprised at how he, you know, responded to what happened to you? I mean, you know, you are an artist on his label and you get caught up in this situation.

MAC PHIPPS: Well, I'ma say this and I - you know, I - because I - everybody's entitled to the way they feel. And I mean, he's as entitled to the way he feel as anyone else. And, you know, he he had expressed to me, you know, before that, you know, he basically had a problem with me doing some of these smaller clubs. He did. And, you know, that's - you know, that's that.

CARMICHAEL: In a lot of ways, you've kind of to distance yourself from the image that you portrayed during your No Limit years. I spent a lot of time listening to your No Limit discography and, you know, really, like, in hindsight, it's really not as gangsta as a lot of the music that defined that gangsta era, you know?

MAC PHIPPS: Right. Right.

CARMICHAEL: Like, I hear so much, like, resistance and the spirit of resistance in, like, a lot of songs from back then, like the cops and robbers joining. Especially stuff on that second LP.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COPS & ROBBERS")

MAC PHIPPS: Keep your heaters off safety. I never let you crook cops erase me. Cops and robbers - it's like a deadly game of cops and robbers. The niggas who unload first be the survivors, the rest is dead on arrival.

CARMICHAEL: Is it harder for you to embrace that music, like, just because of the way that the prosecutors, like, contorted it and twisted it and used it against you?

MAC PHIPPS: That's a - man, that's a good question. For a while, it had me at a point where I really couldn't listen to it because it just - it, like, brought back the trial. It brought back the way that my words were used against me. And I - you know, and for me, it was unfair because I think it was used because there was a lack of any evidence. But I guess what really bothered me more than anything is the fact that this is hip-hop, man. This is art. You know, I rap about things that I seen or sometimes I just made up stories. I mean, because, I mean, at the end of the day, this is entertainment, you know?

CARMICHAEL: Yeah.

MAC PHIPPS: So after - and to have this used against me - it was like, wow, man, you know?

MADDEN: Man, it is so sad that he couldn't even listen to his own stuff. It's tainted for him because it was used to vilify him.

CARMICHAEL: Not to mention to convict him.

Will you perform your - any of your No Limit era music even, like, if fans request that kind of stuff?

MAC PHIPPS: Yeah, I don't have any - I don't regret anything, you know, in the music I've made. You know, I'm - I was 22 years old, you know what I mean? So, I mean, if I were to take back some of the music I made, then I would have to take back myself. Those things were part of me.

CARMICHAEL: Now, you can't talk about Mac's No Limit era without mentioning Corey Miller, aka C-Murder, Master P's brother.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOBBLE WOBBLE")

C-MURDER: (Rapping) Let me see you wobble then shake it, then baby pop it, don't break it. You want love let's make it, I just can't wait 'til you naked. You lick your lips it makes me hard. Daydreamin' of screamin' and fiendin'. You creamin' for sex, that you gonna get this evening. Ya' heard me.

MAC PHIPPS: (Rapping) Now won't you wobble, wobble. Let me see you shake it, shake it. Now won't you drop it, drop it. Oh, take it, take it.

CARMICHAEL: Now, he and Mac - they share a lot more in common than being former label mates.

MADDEN: For the last several years, they were inmates inside the same prison, Elaine Hunt Correctional. Remember that photo with Kevin Gates that the pardon board was talking about? Corey Miller was in it, too.

CARMICHAEL: And the separate murder cases that landed Matt and Corey in prison are also very similar. Both were nightclub shootings. Both had witnesses who recanted testimony.

MADDEN: And both of them were convicted by split juries, a practice that was only legal in two states at the time and has since been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

CARMICHAEL: Did doing these last several years with Corey Miller, you know, your old friend, your old label mate - make the time any easier for you?

MAC PHIPPS: Well, actually, it was bittersweet because, you know, Corey is like a brother to me. And you know, I've always felt - how do I say this? I've always been more concerned about his situation than mine because I always knew that I actually had an out date, whereas, you know, he actually has a life sentence. So I've always been more concerned about his situation than my own. And being around him, we had the opportunity to reminisce together, to talk about old times and to, you know, laugh about things that happened or whatnot.

CARMICHAEL: Would y'all ever talk much about, like, how eerily similar y'all's cases are?

MAC PHIPPS: Believe it or not, we didn't talk much about the cases. It was like - it was one of them things that we just understood, we knew, you know what I mean? And...

CARMICHAEL: What did y'all understand and know?

MAC PHIPPS: Like, we understood that we both have, like, traveled the same road. We both had been - you know, we have been down the same dark road, you know?

CARMICHAEL: And so many No Limit artists actually, you know, ended up, you know, facing a fate that led to prison time.

MAC PHIPPS: Right.

CARMICHAEL: Obviously, you and Corey Miller, the Kane and Abel brothers. Do you think that the label or even artists on the label were targeted by law enforcement?

MAC PHIPPS: At some point, I think they were. I think we were, rather. At some point, I think we were.

CARMICHAEL: Why you say that?

MAC PHIPPS: Now, why? I have no idea. But I do know at some point, we were. I mean, I remember being stopped by some police one time, and they were searching my car. And they were, like, saying something to the effect, like, I know y'all are doing this. I know y'all are doing that. And I'll make sure we get you, you know? And I'm just like - looking like, man, this is a routine traffic stop. This is crazy, you know what I mean? So I do know that at some point, we were targeted. Their reason for targeting, they can probably tell you better than me.

MADDEN: And of course, potential targeting is just one of the things that people point to in terms of injustices in Mac's case.

CARMICHAEL: Well, that's the interesting thing about this clemency - right? - is that it stops short of, you know, saying that you're innocent. It's not a pardon, right? But I'm curious, like, what is more important to you at this point? Is it being free?

MAC PHIPPS: Yeah.

CARMICHAEL: Or is it being absolved of the crime altogether?

MAC PHIPPS: Yeah, being free. At this point, man, this is like, I need to be with my family. My parents are getting old. I miss them so much. I missed 21 years of my son's life. I'm faced with having to get to know him all over again, him getting to know me, you know, 'cause this is a grown man that I'm going to face when I get out of here. This is not a kid, you know? And I miss my - you know, my siblings. You know, I want to go spend time with my wife and my stepkids. And those things are probably more important to me than anything else.

CARMICHAEL: How hard is it having to sacrifice one for the other, though?

MAC PHIPPS: Man, I think after doing 21 years in prison, it's a no-brainer.

CARMICHAEL: (Laughter).

MAC PHIPPS: I'm telling you it's a no-brainer.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah.

MAC PHIPPS: This is like, you want this? You want - man, I want out of jail now, you know what I mean?

CARMICHAEL: (Laughter) I hear you.

MAC PHIPPS: But you get to the point you're like, we only got so much time on this planet. I ain't got no more time to waste. Let's roll.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. So now your case is going to the office of the governor.

MAC PHIPPS: Right.

CARMICHAEL: I'm curious, like, what would you say to the governor about the case and what you hope happens?

MAC PHIPPS: What do you say to a governor? Man, that's kind of serious. I guess I would just, you know - I would just plead for the opportunity to, you know, to show and prove that I can be a productive member of society. I would let him know that I wouldn't let him down, that I would be a very good investment. And that's about it.

CARMICHAEL: Like, what will it feel like when you get to finally walk out of those prison doors?

MAC PHIPPS: Now, this is weird. I don't know 'cause I ain't never walked out before. So it's like - I don't know, man. Like, I've heard guys over the years, like, tell me stories about how they felt - you know, guys that'd been obviously locked up again. And they're just telling me how it felt when they left prison. And I just - you know, I always wanted to hear those stories because they always, like, made me feel good. And now it's like, OK, this is about to happen to me. I don't know what I'mma (ph) do. I might pass out.

CARMICHAEL: (Laughter).

Now, the world Mac will be walking back into - man, it's changed a lot. I mean, he hadn't seen New Orleans since before Katrina. And the hip-hop universe has changed a lot, too.

MADDEN: Some of it, Mac's aware of - other stuff, not so much. He says he avoids listening to the radio on purpose.

CARMICHAEL: Same.

MADDEN: But he still consumes lots of music on his own - and not just hip-hop. The prison has its own version of iTunes, and he downloads a lot of music from it. He's a big fan of J. Cole and Alabama Shakes.

CARMICHAEL: And as for his own relationship with making music, Mac says it's still his lifeblood.

MAC PHIPPS: I'm never going to stop writing, never going to stop playing music. It's just something that I do, you know? I'm a musician, man. You know, I play instruments. You know, so of course I'm going to record. Of course I'm going to release stuff. And I mean, how well it do or - I don't think about that. You know, that's up to the fans. And if they want it, then I'mma keep on bringing it. If not, then I'll move to something else. I ain't going to quit my day job (laughter), you know, until I know it's solidified.

MADDEN: Man, Mac's outlook is so positive, it's almost like you have to be mad for him.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, but he also made sure to let us know that carrying these last 21 years has been nowhere near as easy as he might make it sound.

Yeah, I imagine that that kind of thinking probably made it more manageable to do 20 years. I imagine if you were the other way, meaning very mad, upset, frustrated, pissed at being in this predicament and being there unjustly...

MAC PHIPPS: Oh, I was pissed. Don't get it twisted. I was pissed. I don't ever want to undermine this and give you the impression that this was easy, you know, because it wasn't. This is not something easy to deal with, you know? But when you consider yourself a soldier, you meet whatever the task is. And, I mean, I just had to - I had ways that I had to learn how to deal with this. And those ways is what kept me sane throughout these years. So, you know, being optimistic and always looking for - you know, looking for the bright side, as they say, is what kept me going. You know, I didn't - I promised myself...

AUTOMATED VOICE: One minute remaining.

MAC PHIPPS: ...That I wouldn't allow my heart to go black. You know, I didn't want it to - I didn't want to become a bitter person. So I just made the best of it, man.

CARMICHAEL: Well, it sounds like you did that successfully, man. And I wish all the best to you now. And I hope that the rest of your life is as positive as this experience has been negative.

MAC PHIPPS: Oh, it will, brother. And look. When I'm ready to - I got this verse for you. When I'm ready to release it, I want you to do a story about it.

CARMICHAEL: Let's do it. Let's do it. I'm ready.

MAC PHIPPS: All right.

CARMICHAEL: Thank you, Mac.

MAC PHIPPS: Well, it was - thank y'all, man. It was good talking to you.

CARMICHAEL: Nah, you too, man. We appreciate it.

MAC PHIPPS: All right. Peace.

CARMICHAEL: Take care.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDEN: OK. There's still no guarantees. As of right now, Governor John Bel Edwards's office tells us they haven't yet received Mac's clemency application. But assuming the governor signs those papers and the parole board gets its terms of release together, Mac could be out before the year ends.

CARMICHAEL: And clemency might just be the beginning of Mac's journey towards justice. Remember, there's that Supreme Court case, the one that ruled that nonunanimous juries are unconstitutional, which leaves a big question on the table - whether the ruling applies retroactively to old cases like Mac's. Let's just say it might mean that Mac's name could still one day be cleared.

MADDEN: For right now, Angelique is looking forward to just having her husband come home and doing some really normal things.

A PHIPPS: It may sound completely insane, but it's, like, just little things. Like, we can go to the grocery store together, walk the dogs and just have that part of life that we haven't been able to have.

MADDEN: Little things like Mac taking his first trip to Walmart in two decades - since he's been granted work release.

A PHIPPS: I was messing with him. I said, you know, give it some time. You'll hate it as much as I do (laughter). But in that moment, you know, you take into consideration that he hasn't been to Walmart in 20 years. So, you know, he was like, man, it's like a mall, you know? And I look forward to that, too, to seeing things through his eyes.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, it's kind of the same for Mac's dad, McKinley Sr.

MCKINLEY PHIPPS: I just want us to do normal things - you know, barbecue in the yard, go fishing and stuff like that.

MADDEN: You said in the hearing you can't wait to - you want to hug your son again - right? What's that hug going to feel like, that first hug with him?

MCKINLEY PHIPPS: Oh, it's going to be a great hug because, you know, I used to visit him all the time, and I'd always hug him before I leave the jailhouse. But, you know, since COVID, what it has been - I haven't been able to hug him in a long time. You know, I haven't been able to hug him in a long time. That's all. Yeah.

MADDEN: A father hugging his son after 21 years. It's not exactly justice - not even close. But it may be the closest Mac's family gets to it, for now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: This episode was written by us, Rodney Carmichael, Sidney Madden and the whole LOUDER THAN A RIOT team.

MADDEN: Our producers are Rachel Neel, Adelina Lancianese, Dustin DeSoto and Graham Smith.

CARMICHAEL: Editing by Robert Little and Terry Samuel.

MADDEN: Our engineer is Josh Newell.

CARMICHAEL: LaTesha Harris, Theo Greenly, Will Chase and Micah Ratner contributed to the research and production of this episode.

MADDEN: Original music by Kassa Overall and Ramtin Arablouei.

CARMICHAEL: And shoutout out to the bigwigs - Steve Nelson, Lauren Onkey and Anya Grundmann. Special thanks to Jeremy Phipps and the entire Phipps family.

MADDEN: Follow us on Twitter. We're @LouderThanARiot. Rate and review us at Apple Podcasts and email us at louder@npr.org.

For the music you heard in this episode and from our first season, search for the official LOUDER THAN A RIOT playlist on Apple Music and Spotify now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: From NPR Music, this is LOUDER THAN A RIOT.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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