Rodney Carmichael and Sidney Madden are the hosts of Louder Than A Riot, a new podcast from NPR Music that investigates the interconnected rise of hip-hop and mass incarceration in America.
On February 20, 2000, Mac didn't want to get out of bed. As a well-known wordsmith within his home state of Louisiana who was just beginning to teeter on mainstream fame as an artist on No Limit Records, Mac was supposed to perform a show at Club Mercedes in Slidell, La. that night, but as his parents recall two decades later, he slept late and had a cloud over him all day.
"It was just weird," Mac remembers. "It's hard to even pinpoint what my exact feeling was but I just know I wasn't feeling it."
Mac, born McKinley Phipps Jr., was scheduled to head out on a six-month tour the next day. The biggest hit he'd ever record was in the can, to be released in a little over a month. But he didn't like the venue, in a small town in St. Tammany Parish across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, where Mac grew up. "Growing up," Mac says, "it was just understood in New Orleans you know that the Ku Klux Klan was in St. Tammany Parish."
"That's one of the places where I would have never went had we not had that show," recalls Mac's brother, Chad Phipps. "When you're Brown, you're not welcome. It's sort of a racist area — get stopped a lot and, uh, harassed a lot in that area."
Mac's career was a family business. His dad, McKinley Phipps Sr., managed him and his mom, Sheila Phipps, booked him in local venues and took tickets at the door. Chad would occasionally run security. On that night, the whole family headed to Slidell and Mac, who couldn't set aside his bad feelings, carried a gun for protection.
The crowd at Club Mercedes that night was rowdy, and soon a fight broke out on the floor. "My brother, at some point, saw me in the middle of this ruckus that looked like it was about to happen," Chad says. "So he started walking up and I can see him walking up over my shoulder. Now, I'm still holding off two guys from fighting each other as my brother's walking up over my shoulder to see what was going on, and the next thing you know, it was like, a POW!"
In an interview years later, Mac described the confusion of the scene that followed. "I guess part of my brain was trying to process whether this pop was on the song or whether it was from a gunshot, but to take precautionary measures, I got low and looked around," he said.
When Chad looked up, he saw what several other people in the club would later say they saw: Mac holding a gun.
"He ... had it pointed at the ceiling and he was kinda ducking," Chad says. "Once people started running toward the exit, I was like, 'Oh, that must have been a gunshot.'"
When he got to the exit, Chad didn't see his brother, who had stayed in the club to find their parents. On their way out of the club, Chad and Mac's father, noticed a man on the ground with a woman standing over him. The woman, a first-year nursing student named Yulon James, began administering CPR on the spot. Mac Senior recalls that when he asked whether the man was hurt, she said he was okay but had been shot in the arm.
The family piled into two cars and drove the 90 miles back home to Baton Rouge. After they arrived home, in the wee hours of the morning, Mac got a phone call from detectives in St. Tammany saying he's wanted in connection with the shooting in the club. When they arrived at the house soon after, the police were in full force.
"I had like four policemen — three with pistols, one with a shotgun — come charging and running at me, telling me, 'Get on the ground, get on the ground, get on the ground,'" Mac's father says. The police told him that Mac was wanted for murder. "I told him, I said, 'Wasn't nobody dead when I left."
But the shooting victim that Mac's father saw lying on the ground — a 19-year-old man named Barron Victor, Jr. — had died from a single gunshot wound that went through his arm and struck his heart. Police searched the house, took guns belonging to Mac and his father, who was a Vietnam vet, and handcuffed Mac.
At the time, Mac thought, "'I'm gonna go down here — they're going to question me, they're going to run checks on my hands and then they're going to let me go."
At the St. Tammany Parish sheriff's office, Mac agreed to an interrogation without a lawyer present. The two detectives who questioned him asked about one of his nicknames, The Camouflage Assassin, and told him that they had witnesses who put him at the scene with a gun in his hand. Even though his gun was registered, Mac, who knows that carrying a concealed weapon in a club is illegal in Louisiana, denies it. "Nah, a witness couldn't put a gun in my hand," you can hear him say on a recording of the interview.
"You need to tell us the truth," one of the detectives says.
"I'm telling you the honest truth," Mac says. "When I was in that club, I did not have a gun."
"Somebody got murdered, man," one of the detectives says. "So everybody in Slidell is just gonna bum rap you, huh? They just going to pick you out because you're a superstar and say, 'Mac's the one that shot this dude?'"
Mac was arrested that night, but sat in jail for a month before being charged with second degree murder. A month after that, he finally got a bail hearing, where his bail was denied.
Then, a ray of hope: Days after Mac's arrest, a man named Thomas Williams walked into the St. Tammany Sheriff's office with his pastor beside him. He had something to tell the police about the shooting. Something that had been keeping him up at night.
Williams was part of Mac's entourage, and was working as a security guard at Club Mercedes that night. He told the St. Tammany's police that at some point, someone in the crowd had charged at him with a beer bottle, and he'd panicked and pulled out his gun. Williams confessed that he, not Mac, was the one who shot Barron Victor, Jr.
Mac heard about Thomas's confession from jail. Years later, when the journalist David Lohr was reporting on the case, Mac told Lohr, "I was like, 'OK. I'm going home.'"
For more than a year, NPR has tried to get an interview with Mac, who is currently incarcerated at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, a Louisiana State Penitentiary in St. Gabriel, outside Baton Rouge. Our requests were repeatedly denied by the prison's warden, with no explanation. In 2015 and 2016, Lohr and the documentary filmmaker Michael Shahin were able to interview Mac. All quotes by Mac in this story were provided to NPR by Lohr or Shahin.
Mac was wrong. The police sent Thomas Williams home. Mac stayed in jail. Two decades later, he still hasn't been home.
In 2000, when he went to jail, Mac — just 22 years old — was already a veteran rapper in the third phase of an evolving career. Ten years earlier, he'd released his debut, The Lyrical Midget, as Lil Mac. He was ahead of the curve. A couple of years before Kris Kross jumped to the top of the charts, he was releasing songs like "I Need Wheels" — in which he confesses his desires not for puppy love, but for a car, so he wouldn't have to rely on his parents to drive him around town to see all his girlfriends.
The young rap phenom came up in New Orleans in the '80s, back when the Big Easy was the murder capital of America. His father, a Vietnam vet, worked at the VA hospital, while his mom, a visual artist, stayed home raising Mac and his five younger siblings. They struggled financially and moved around, "from apartment to apartment to apartment," Mac's father, McKinley Phipps Sr. remembers. "We lived in certain neighborhoods where we stayed on every block in that neighborhood. You know, if you say General Taylor Street, we stayed on [the] 31, 32 and 3300 block of General Taylor, you know, because it was like a constant struggle.
His parents encouraged his pursuit of music as long as he maintained his grades and stayed out of trouble, Mac Senior says. And his promise was paying off. After winning a city-wide talent show, Lil Mac had landed a record deal with Yo Records, the New Orleans label that sparked the careers of two other local legends in the making, rapper Gregory D and DJ Mannie Fresh, who would produce Mac's first album before going on to become the in-house producer behind Cash Money stars Lil Wayne, Juvenile and the rest of the Hot Boys.
Not all his peers were fans — not right away, at least. The New Orleans DJ and producer Raj Smoove, who became one of Mac's closest collaborators, remembers making diss records about the up-and-coming local star before they met. But Raj remembers being knocked out after finding out Mac could do more than "I Need Wheels."
"Mac was kind of like New Orleans' version of Nas," says Raj. "Just his flow, the intelligence that he had behind his rhymes ... Every time he had a verse on the song, like you always need, like, his verse was going to be that verse that was going to be everybody's favorite verse."
The pair's tastes cut against the grain of the bounce music that was rising in the early 1990s, giving New Orleans its hip-hop identity. Bounce's roots go deep into New Orleans history, back to enslavement and The Congo Square, the birthplace of American music, as music historian and journalist Charlie Braxton explains.
"The French believed that the slaves could practice their own music, practice their own religion, which is why New Orleans is one of the more Africanized cities in the United States," Braxton says. "And because they were able to retain those African rhythms, those rhythms eventually transferred into jazz drumming, R&B drumming, and eventually found its way into hip-hop."
In the mid-80s, one song from a short-lived Queens group called The Showboys helped ignite a new phase of the New Orleans sound. "Drag Rap" got its name from the '60s TV show Dragnet whose theme the song lifts, but after it made its way south through Memphis on its way to New Orleans, it became known by a new name: "Triggerman."
It hit the South hard. Raj calls it as "one of the greatest songs that ever touched New Orleans. ... "I think it was like one high school dance [where] they played 'Triggerman' like seven times and we never got tired of it."
Embedded in the song were elements that the Big Easy recognized. Charlie Braxton says that not only is the breakdown on "Triggerman" "closely akin to the rhythm that people in New Orleans are accustomed to," the song's call and response linked it to African chants. All these elements came together in early bounce songs like DJ Jimi's "Where They At," which is built on the "Triggerman" instrumental.
But as bounce was taking hold of New Orleans, Mac and Raj were looking to New York.
"We were the guys that was listening to Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy," Raj says. "We had the little sock hats and the Cross Colours and all that stuff."
Still in high school, they branded themselves The Psychoward, and began opening for national acts touring through New Orleans. His verbal agility and stage presence earned him the nickname The Camouflage Assassin. But in the mid-'90s, Mac was beginning to hit a ceiling in New Orleans. Luckily for him, another hometown movement was rising.
Master P, born Percy Miller, grew up in the same world as Mac, another native of New Orleans's Third Ward. But he took a detour out west to found No Limit Records before returning home in 1995. Back in Louisiana, he built his label into a powerhouse by emulating J. Prince's groundbreaking — and defiantly Southern — Houston-based Rap-A-Lot Records and exercising a savvy approach to the business of selling records that included holding onto ownership of his masters and flooding the market with albums that looked — thanks to iconic Pen & Pixel cover art — and sounded like what New Orleans rap fans wanted.
"If you were around during the No Limit days and you were in the hood, you know about how cats was standing in line at 12 o'clock midnight waiting for that new No Limit," Braxton says.
In 1996, Master P had his first platinum album, and as an independent label owner in the era before MP3s and streaming, he was raking in cash. And he had plans to expand his empire by growing his army.
"The only way I could show my success [is] if I create other millionaires ... with people that look like me, come from the hood," Master P says now. "Like I said, the more millionaires I create, the most successful I would be."
Mac was ready to level up. In the summer of '96, he caught the attention of Def Jam Records, but didn't want to move to New York. Then he met Master P, and quickly signed to No Limit.
Raj says that Mac's affiliation with the label marked a new chapter in his artistic development.
"No Limit was really kind of doing, like, you know, just New Orleans gangster music. It was a bit of an odd peg for Mac," he says. "A lot of the intellectual stuff and the, you know, the deep, multi-tiered level creativity and lyricism that he was able to do, he kind of had to pull a lot of that back. ... Because he had to represent for the tank, like he was a soldier now."
Mac leaned into one of his earlier aliases — the Camouflage Assassin — and titled his first album Shell Shocked, featuring songs like "Murda, Murda, Kill, Kill." When it came out in 1998 — a year in which nearly half of the albums No Limit released went platinum — Shell Shocked broke the top 20 on the Billboard album chart.
"I remember the first album he came out with, he did not want me to hear it," says Mac's mother, Sheila Phipps. "Because he was used to me hearing his other music... He said, 'Mom, it's a lot of cursing in that,' 'Cause you know he don't like to curse in front of me. ... But I knew it was all about, you know, him wanting to get paid and help his family out of the struggles that we were having."
Around this time, in an effort to put some distance between their massive success and the streets of New Orleans, Master P relocated No Limit's headquarters to Baton Rouge, buying half a dozen houses in The Country Club of Louisiana, an exclusive gated community into which he could install his family and artists. P recalls that the community tried to stop him from moving in, but only succeeded in barring him from the golf course.
"They just was shocked," he says. "They didn't understand how a young person like me could afford to be in a neighborhood like that, especially be black and have just as much as they have or more."
Southern music historian Charlie Braxton puts things more starkly: "Baton Rouge is not New Orleans. They're not used to seeing young black men with a lot of money living in areas reserved for wealthy white people, and they're not trying to fit in. That makes them nervous. Keep this in mind: Rap music is becoming popular with their children and their grandchildren. So now you got authentic rap stars, people that they see on MTV and BET ... living in their neighborhood, living next to their daughters and their sons."
Mac also moved with his family to Baton Rouge, got a house and two nice cars, according to his mother, Sheila Phipps. "It really changed," she says. "Mac was on a roll so much with No Limit. ... It got a lot better. It was, it was pretty good, you know, for a while."
Despite the success he'd found with No Limit, Mac was feeling ready for something new.
"The No Limit brand was so big ... they had so much going on, you know, it was constant work," Mac says. "We were recording or we were going here, we were performing here, we were flying here. We were doing movies. ... You neer really got a moment to be like, 'Yo, man. I've really made it.'"
Mac felt he'd learned enough from watching Master P to go out on his own. He named his new company Camouflage Entertainment, and the show at Club Mercedes in Slidell on February 20, 2000, was part of that plan.
Mac's trial for the murder of Barron Victor, Jr. began on Monday, Sept. 10, 2001, in the St. Tammany Parish courthouse. Mac's entire family — uncles and aunts and grandparents — filled rows in the dingy, wood-paneled courtroom. Bruce Dearing, the prosecutor representing the state, made his approach clear from his opening argument.
"'Murder, Murder, Kill, Kill.' 'Pull the trigger, put a bullet in your head,'" Dearing said to the all-white jury. "Those are some of the lyrics that this defendant chooses to rap when he performs. This is the self-proclaimed 'Camouflaged Assassin.'"
Mac couldn't believe what was happening. "I have lived my whole life trying to ... stay out of jail so I can pursue my dreams," he said later. "And here it is — my dream was being used against me in court."
The idea that his ability to shape-shift artistically was being portrayed as evidence of his guilt was especially crushing. "I used to rap about trying to save the world," Mac would say. "I used to rap about all types of stuff growing up, you know, conscious stuff. That's what I was known for before I signed with No Limit ... But here I started making the type of music that [was] selling and all of a sudden, this music, it was being used against me in court and it's like, God damn."
The prosecutor, Bruce Dearing, told the jury about the confession of Thomas Williams, who told police he'd shot Barron Victor, Jr. after Mac had been arrested. He said Williams was unreliable, a career criminal. And he called two eyewitnesses who testified to seeing Mac fire a gun in the club. The first, Barron Victor's cousin Nathaniel Tillison, said he'd "looked dead in [Mac's] eyes." The second was Yulon James, the nursing student who Mac's father saw giving Barron CPR after he'd been shot. James, who was pregnant when she testified, said Mac had been holding a gun, and she'd seen "sparks" coming out of it.
The state had no murder weapon or physical evidence, and Mac had no criminal record, so the crux of its argument was his lyrics. Aaron Zachmeier, then a young reporter covering the trial for the Slidell Sentry News, says that Dearing leaned heavily on Mac's stage name, the Camouflage Assassin. "I imagine they thought that it was an easy way to scare the jury," Zachmeier says. "To turn a person into a monster. He did a good job."
Mac's lawyer decided not to call a single witness. He explained to Mac that their strongest piece of evidence was Thomas Williams's videotaped confession, which Dearing had presented. He argued for a mistrial following the state's use of Mac's lyrics, but was denied. In his closing argument, he insisted that it was absurd to imagine a musician could shoot and kill an audience member at their show, particularly with his own mother in attendance.
The jury deliberated until close to midnight, then returned with a guilty verdict on a lesser charge, manslaughter, for a crime "committed in sudden passion or of blood." Because Louisiana was one of two states in the country where jury verdicts did not have to be unanimous, he was convicted despite two members of his jury voting not guilty.
Sheila Phipps remembers shouting out in disbelief at the verdict. Mac says he felt numb, and cried like never before in his life. The judge sentenced him to 30 years hard labor. Mac was 24 years old.
"I went back to the jail when they brought me back and I was angry. I was angry with God more than anything," Mac says. "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 any more. I didn't believe in nothing. Everything was just dark."
Mac's lyrics were used against him to seal his fate that day in Slidell. To Mac, it was their only way to depict him as a killer.
"I didn't have any criminal history for them to look into," he says. "I guess they 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."
This wasn't the first time a rapper's music had been used against them in a criminal case and it wouldn't be the last. The lineage of rap lyrics being used to assign guilt is a tactic that goes back decades. In 1998, Sacramento rapper C-Bo was arrested on a parole violation after officers cited that one of his songs advocated gang activity. In 2001, Memphis' Project Pat was convicted on a gun possession charge but filed an appeal, claiming that his lyrics were used out of context in court which led the judge to sentence him more harshly. As recently as 2019, L.A. rhymer Drakeo The Ruler's lyrics were used to bolster an argument of conspiracy to commit murder, a charge he still sits in jail awaiting trial on.
As Professor Erik Nielson of the University of Richmond explains, the strategic use of rap lyrics in court relies on a prosecutor's ability to make a jury believe the words are facts — used for building up the person's character, their motive or even a confession — not creative fiction.
"Many people have a difficult time believing that these young men are capable of learning and mastering a highly sophisticated, complex art form," Nielson says. "And so if you don't see them as artists, then it's difficult to read their lyrics and hear figurative language."
Nielson is the co-author of Rap On Trial: Race, Lyrics and Guilt In America along with Professor Andrea L. Dennis. Together, the scholars have researched over 500 cases to show the scope of how often this tactic is used. "In the vast majority of these cases, it's your average ordinary, a young Black or Latino man. There are a number of cases involving celebrities or high profile artists but the vast majority are just ordinary citizens," Dennis says.
No matter if the defendant is a big name or not, no other genre is policed in this way. Stories of killings abound in folk and country music, but psychological studies have shown that simply labeling a set of lyrics "rap" rather than "country" will prompt an audience to say it poses a danger to listeners. The racial undertones of this tactic disregard rappers as creative thinkers and discounts the music they make as being worthy free speech.
"This is not a First Amendment issue with racial implications. It is a racial issue with First Amendment implications," Nielson says. "It's a new permutation on a 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 in black expression, being targeted, that is nothing new. Black expression sends shivers through white America still."
The legacy of Black music being fetishized and vilified reaches back farther than hip-hop. The archetype of the Black American outlaw in popular music dates at least far back as the Legend of Stagolee. As the story goes, Stagger Lee Shelton was a St. Louis scallywag who murdered a man in 1895 for snatching his Stetson hat. Though he died in prison, he became the stuff of folklore, mythologized in song for centuries to come. The tune "Stagger Lee" has been recorded over 400 times by blues, folk, soul and rock artists. "It's told in rhymed form from the first person. It's violent. It's funny at times. It's hypersexual," Nielson says. "It reads like gangster rap, but it's over a hundred years old." Pull in more inspiration from the Black arts movement, Blaxploitation films and blue comedy legends from Dolemite to Blowfly and you have the tradition that Mac stepped into on No Limit. Even as he leaned into those gangsta tropes, there was still a spirit of resistance.
On songs like "Battle Cry (Tomorrow)," from his LP World War III, Mac's inner city blues spill all over the track:
And as the blood of my n***** flood the streets
I refuse to speak
The cracks and concrete could misguide ya feet
And tears fall at the sight of these white sheets
The streetlight heats the cold secrets that midnight keeps
"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," Nielson says. "Even if you have that in the most sort of trite recycled form — I would argue flaunting wealth — I think that at some level that is still performing a kind of resistance."
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the institutional response to this resistance was a tightening grip. In the late '90s and early 2000s, hip-hop labels around the country increasingly became targets of federal investigations. J Prince, the founder of Houston's Rap-A-Lot Records and an inspiration to No Limit's Master P, recalls that success brought attention from law enforcement.
"We didn't bite our tongue when, you know, subject matter such as [exposing] crooked officers ... where they were concerned," J Prince says. "We were speaking for our people."
The artists on Rap-A-Lot were constantly stopped by police. One night, J himself was pulled over, and after police searched his car, he discovered that a bullet was missing from the clip of one of the two legal guns he had in the car. He soon found out that the DEA was investigating Rap-A-Lot for drug trafficking.
Law enforcement clearly had its sights trained on No Limit as well. Two of the label's biggest stars, Kane and Abel, were indicted for drug trafficking. Master P's brother Corey Miller, who rapped as C-Murder, was convicted in 2002 of murder in a case that's eerily similar to Mac's.
Asked what the special attention paid to No Limit says about police, Master P himself is measured. "When you come out together and you make the type of money that No Limit made, they you will be stereotyped," he says. But as he goes on, you can hear how he understands law enforcement as a trap waiting to be sprung if you step out of line.
"My goals, my dreams, was bigger than them projects, and that's how I was able to survive," he continues. "And you have to show people that you're not like everybody else, but when you start hanging around the wrong people, then you become a bigger target. And I just think that's what Mac got caught up [in]. That's where my brother got caught up at. ... Everybody wants to hang out with, you know, good and bad people. So you have to be able to cut those people off. That's what I was able to do. I don't want to have to look over my shoulder. I don't want to do nothing wrong. I'm just gonna keep moving and doing right."
Fundamentally, P is saying, as long as I stay focused enough on my future, I can keep law enforcement off my back, stay safe within this crooked system. And if you get locked up, that's because you stepped off the path, didn't play by the rules that would keep you safe. But Mac trusted the system to believe him, too — enough to go with police, to speak to detectives without a lawyer, to argue his case in front of a jury. It's just that the system was always stacked against him.
"I know that his music got him incarcerated, but they got the wrong guy. I mean, when you talk about 'assassin,' we talking about verbal assassin," P says. "And I think the system mixed that up — with what he is as an entertainer and as a person. He's probably one of the nicest people that you'll ever meet."
While Mac has been incarcerated at Elayn Hunt, the apparatus of evidence and law enforcement that put him there has steadily crumbled.
In 2013, Yulon James, the pregnant nursing student who testified that she'd seen sparks fly out of Mac's gun inside Club Mercedes, officially recanted her testimony. At the time, she told the journalist David Lohr, who was investigating the case against Mac, that she had no idea what had happened in the club. But they kept pressuring her right up until the trial.
"They threatened to charge her if she didn't testify," Lohr says. "They said, 'We'll file an obstruction charge, you know, against you if you don't get up on the stand and, and say, well, 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, 'You know, if you don't get up there and testify, you're going to have that baby behind bars.'"
We contacted Yulon James ourselves, and she said she's scared to say more than she already has. The baby she had after Mac's trial is now a young adult, and she worries about what can happen to people who speak out in Slidell.
The state's other eyewitness presented a different set of problems. The version of events provided by Nathaniel Tillison, the cousin of the victim, kept changing from statement to statement, pointing more definitively at Mac's guilt.
David Lohr says that as he investigated more, he heard more stories of witnesses being pressured to cooperate. "You know taking these individually, you don't think a lot of them, because, you know, a lot of people will claim something," Lohr says. "But 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. There's something to it."
At the same time, there were at least two eyewitnesses claiming to be at Club Mercedes on the night of the shooting who say they experienced a different kind of pressure. Monique Hart and Jamie Wilson didn't know each other, but were both at the show, and both insist that they saw Mac in the crowd — "within arm's reach," Hart says — at the moment that the gunshots rang out in a different part of the club.
Both Hart and Wilson also say they contacted the police in Slidell to set the record straight. Hart never heard back. Wilson's mother insisted she drive to the station to make a statement, but the detective who spoke with her accused her of lying until she finally left. She didn't give up — she reached out to Mac's lawyer and said she would be willing to testify. Soon after, she started getting pulled over constantly by the police.
"They used to search my car and stuff," Wilson says. One officer stayed on her. "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.' And I was like, 'What are you talking about?' He was like, 'Aren't you a witness for... you know?'"
As Lohr investigated the case against Mac, he began to question Mac's guilt. Mac had no criminal history. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. The guns presented at the trial — including the one Mac said he was carrying at the club and lied to investigators about — were not the murder weapon. The stories of the witnesses seemed less and less reliable. But there was one thing he discovered was working the way it was intended to: the prosecution of poor or black defendants in St. Tammany Parish.
At the time, St. Tammany was known for locking up more people than any other parish in Louisiana, which for years was the state with the highest incarceration rate in America — the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world. That's how the place earned the nickname St. Slammany.
Two of the men who kept St. Slammany well-oiled were its district attorney Walter Reed, and its sheriff, Jack Strain. Reed once presented a "St. Slammany Award" to a member of his team for being the year's most eager prosecutor. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, Strain went public warning New Orleans residents to stay away from his parish. "I don't want to see temporary housing because of Katrina turn into long-term housing for a bunch of thugs and trash that don't need to be in St. Tammany Parish," he told a TV crew.
Eventually, by way of a thoroughly unlikely series of events, Reed and Strain made an enemy they couldn't shake and couldn't put away. Before Terry King ever tangled with Reed, he was just another private citizen, an auditor by training. King moved to St. Tammany in 2002, when his wife got a job with the coroner, who was a friend of Walter Reed. In the course of her job, she uncovered ethics violations in that office, and when Laura and Terry King went public, Terry was charged with an obscure law that said you can't talk about ethics complaints.
Terry King felt the heat on him from Reed, and retaliated the way he knew how — by investigating Reed for corruption. He worked with a community organizer named Belinda Parker Brown to find out what the community could tell them about the ways in which their civil rights had been violated by the DA. And within the stream of stories of being beaten by cops on the side of the road or having possessions stolen by the government, they uncovered hints of a work release program operating out of the parish jail.
Programs like this one are intended to give prisoners a chance to start earning an honest living before they're officially released. The jail is allowed to take a percentage of the pay to account for overhead, but King and Brown learned that St. Tammany's work release program was bringing the jail about $3 million per year by taking three quarters of what its inmates earned. The majority of the money passed from the prisoners' hands to the sheriff's office in cash, leaving inmates no money to pay taxes or child support on the money they were supposedly earning. Meanwhile, Jack Strain and deputies from the sheriff's office were allegedly using stolen money for family vacations, hunting trips, jewelry and a new truck.
While under investigation in 2014, Reed declined to run for office. In 2017 he was convicted on 18 counts of various forms of fraud and money laundering and sentenced to a (notably lenient) four years in prison. In 2019, Strain was charged in two separate indictments — a federal corruption case built around the worker release scheme and an unrelated state case for charges of sex crimes dating back to 1979. He has pleaded not guilty in both cases.
There's even an element of the law itself that helped put Mac in jail that is now under scrutiny. For more than a century, Louisiana has had a law on the books that allows a person to be convicted by a jury that cannot come to a unanimous decision. The law dates back to the aftermath of reconstruction, when new laws allowed Black people to vote and serve on juries. During Louisiana's constitutional convention of 1898, new laws were passed with the stated purpose of "establishing the supremacy of the white race." Along with a poll tax and a literacy test for voting, a constitutional provision allowed a jury to convict even if up to three out of 12 jurors voted not guilty.
Mac's current attorney, Stanton Jones, says that particular provision was "deliberately designed to eliminate the influence and power of Black jurors ... based on a sort of understanding of the racial demographics in the jury pool in Louisiana. At the time, it was fairly predictable that there wouldn't often be more than two Black jurors on a jury of 12 people.... You could just convince the 10 white jurors.... So when I say that this is grounded in white supremacy, those aren't my words. Those are the words of the people who wrote the Louisiana law."
That law stayed on the books in Louisiana until 2018, when voters made unanimous convictions the rule. And earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that non-unanimous convictions like Mac's violate the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That should be good news for Mac, and it may yet help him in future petitions to the courts in Louisiana. But it doesn't automatically mean he or any of the other inmates serving time for non-unanimous convictions — possibly upwards of 2,000, according to Jones — will get out.
In 2000, before he went to jail, Mac was already thinking about making a change. He was working on an album that he knew was going to be his last on No Limit, one that he felt would build a bridge between his past self and his future self, between No-Limit Mac — a uniform he says he had to find a way to fit into — and the artist he'd been before the tank. He was going to call it One Love.
"It was just my way of bringing things back full circle," he says. It was going to be a chance to show his audience a little of who he really was.
During the time he's been in prison, Mac and his family have continued to maintain his innocence and work for his release. But everyone who knows Mac says the same thing: He's made the most of his life despite being in prison. He's never been written up for any kind of infraction. He's a mentor to other prisoners. He runs a music program and plays keys for multiple prison bands. His mother, Sheila Phipps, says that keeping music in his life has helped to keep Mac sane.
It has helped him make a mark outside the prison as well. The New Orleans rapper and activist Dee-1 was a huge fan of Mac before he met him while performing as part of a prison ministry service. Mac was already a decade into his 30-year sentence, and each man saw himself in the other. That initial meeting turned into a mentorship, with Mac writing letters from prison that included diagrams of keyboard notes and scales. And the mentorship turned into a close friendship.
Dee says Mac told him not to try to fit himself into other people's ideas of success. "I wanted to be a rapper, but I was not a rapper. You know, I had a nine to five," he recalls. "All these people in my ear telling me if I change and if I conform and if I start being a little more street, a little more gangster," he might make it. "But Mac was always like, 'No, you got it already. You have it. Don't change. Just get better at what you already do. I met him right in that season of my life."
For Mac's ability to maintain a positive outlook, Dee says one lesson he's learned from his friend is that you can't outsmart the devil. "He had this plan that, 'Look, I could fit in with this brand and push out this style of hip-hop that's riddled with a lot of violence and just a lot of aggression.... It's not reflective of me but this is easy. ... I could do this if it's going to lead to this almighty dollar,'" he says. "Mac constantly reminds me, like, ultimately, you behave in a manner that's not befitting the person you are [and] eventually it's all going to catch up with you. I'm what he was before he saw a need to try to outsmart the devil."
Though all of our interview requests have continued to be denied by his warden, in recent weeks Mac got a message directly to NPR. It reads:
"Make no mistake about it. There's but one true victim in this tragedy, and that is Barron Victor jr. While Louisiana's criminal justice system did indeed fail me, I failed this young man and his family. It was my failure to adequately provide a safe environment for the patrons of this event that ultimately led to his death. I can only hope that Barron's family will someday forgive me as I forgiven those who wrongfully accused me of killing him."
Even when the system took what he loved — his art, his career, his freedom, 20 years of his life — even though he maintains his innocence, Mac still holds himself accountable for what happened that night. Dee-1 says we can't forget that Mac is also a victim. "The person who pulled the trigger caused Barron Victor to be a victim," he says. "The people who metaphorically pulled the trigger on getting Mac convicted and locked up, those are the perpetrators of this crime against McKinley Phipps. So, it's like, who pays for that?"
In 2014, after more than a decade in prison, Mac met a woman named Angelique. She knew his family and they started talking. She says her first impression of Mac was that he was a thinker, and that meeting him was less like getting to know a new person than having them walk back into her life. Soon they were a serious couple, and even though dating wasn't easy, they started discussing marriage. They wed in 2018, inside Elayn Hunt Correctional Center. Mac's best friend from time at No Limit, Master P's younger brother Corey Miller — better known as C-Murder — served as his best man.
Angelique Phipps has become Mac's confidante and advocate. She wants him home, and says that the efforts to free him have led to a fair share of frustration, and a feeling that despite all the changes in his case over the years, he is somehow more valuable to the system behind bars than he would be as a free man. "These moments where we have hope for his freedom, just over and over and over again, seeing him disappointed" hurts, she says, "understanding how much he craves a normal life."
"I've heard people say this before, but it's really true, is when someone is locked up in prison, it seemed like the whole family is locked up," says Sheila Phipps. "All of us are never free until he's out, until that person is out of prison. Especially with someone that's in there for a crime he didn't commit, you know?"
Mac's mom is a painter, and she says that like her son with his music, her art has helped her stay sane through the years Mac has been locked up. One of her projects is a series of portraits of people in prison for crimes they claim they didn't commit, which that began with a painting of her son. The denied appeals have been painful, she says, but even harder are the holidays and birthdays she's spent without him. Still, she allows herself to imagine that day when he walks out of the prison gates.
"I know I'm going to be ecstatic," she says, emotion filling her voice. "Oh yeah, I'm already knowing. Oh Lord, yes indeed. I'll be so happy. I'll be so happy."
This story consists of material published within three episodes of the NPR Music podcast Louder Than A Riot. It includes editing and reporting by Dustin DeSoto, Matt Ozug, Michael May and Jacob Ganz.