Mac Phipps, the New Orleans-area rapper who has been in prison since being convicted on charges of manslaughter in 2001, was recommended for clemency this week. The recommendation for immediate parole by the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole puts the rapper, who has maintained his insistence that he is innocent of the crime he was accused of, one step closer to freedom.
Delivered in a remote hearing over Zoom on Monday, Feb. 22, the board's unanimous vote does not overturn Phipps' conviction or argue his innocence; rather, it recommends early release in light of the rapper's time served and good behavior while incarcerated. His case now goes to Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards for review. The news comes two decades into a 30-year sentence, which began after a contentious trial in which Phipps' song lyrics became a central tool of the prosecution's case to incriminate him.
A spokesperson for Gov. Edwards told NPR, "Mr. Phipps' application has not been forwarded to [the] Governor's office and as such the Governor is unable to comment about a clemency application he has not yet reviewed." The spokesperson did add that Edwards has approved 273 clemency requests in just over four years in office. (By comparison, his immediate predecessor approved just three such requests in eight years as governor.) If Gov. Edwards grants clemency, Phipps will then be given a parole hearing, and if released will spend 10 years on parole.
Born McKinley Phipps Jr., Mac Phipps began rapping at an early age, dropping his debut album at 13. A local favorite, the hip-hop prodigy eventually signed with one of the most consequential rap labels of the 1990s, Master P's No Limit Records. With that change came an image adjustment: Phipps' early work had been self-identified "conscious" rap, introspective and lyric-driven, but after signing with the more street-oriented label he adopted an explicitly gangsta persona and rebranded with the nickname The Camouflage Assassin. He released two albums with No Limit.
In February 2000, Phipps was at Club Mercedes in Slidell, La., for a performance when gunfire rang out in the room. In the ensuing panic, he regrouped with the family members who had accompanied him to the show and drove home to Baton Rouge, but late that night, police arrived to arrest Phipps in connection with the shooting death of 19-year-old Barron Victor Jr. The rapper was ultimately charged and, in 2001, convicted of manslaughter.
The artist had no previous criminal record, and as his defense argued, no physical evidence linked Phipps to the shooting. Perhaps more notably, days after the arrest, a man named Thomas Williams — a member of Phipps' entourage who had been working security at the club that night — visited local police and confessed that he, not Phipps, had shot Victor. As NPR's Louder Than A Riot podcast reported on Phipps in 2020, the prosecution's case leaned heavily on the rapper's Camouflage Assassin persona, citing lyrics from his songs that described violent acts as indicative of his capacity to commit murder.
"This guy shouldn't be incarcerated. And I know that his music got him incarcerated. But they got the wrong guy," Phipps' former label head, Master P, told Louder Than A Riot in an interview recorded last year. "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."
Even in his clemency hearing on Monday, Phipps' relationship with hip-hop was a point of questioning. Tony Marabella, one of the pardon board members, asked Phipps if he was planning to return to rap once he's released: "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?"
In his response, Phipps shied away from the spotlight that had been used against him two decades prior. "I think at 43 years old, my approach to that business is pretty different," he said. "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." He added that he may not go back to music at all, saying he'd like to make use of the HVAC degree he obtained while in prison, as well as help out with his parents' visual art business.
Clemency from the governor would not exonerate Phipps, but his attorney is preparing for another legal move that could potentially reverse his conviction, based on a separate issue during his 2001 trial.
Phipps was convicted by a non-unanimous jury, which the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled unconstitutional in the United States. (At the time, Louisiana was one of only two states to allow non-unanimous decisions.) This year, the Supreme Court will decide whether that ruling will apply retroactively to older cases like Phipps', too.
Pending that result, Phipps' lawyer Stanton Jones plans to petition the Louisiana courts to throw out his case altogether. If Jones is successful, Phipps' original felony conviction would be invalidated, rendering clemency and parole a moot point. Mac Phipps would be a free man.
Louder Than A Riot hosts Sidney Madden and Rodney Carmichael joined Ari Shapiro to discuss the greater significance of Mac Phipps' story on All Things Considered. Hear their full conversation at the audio link.
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") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.