If you meet McKinley Phipps now, he’s a far cry from the 20-year-old, chart-topping rapper known as Mac, signed to music mogul Master P’s No Limit Records, whose 1998 album “Shell Shocked” reached No. 11 on the Billboard Top 200. “It felt good to be a part of something that was big,” Phipps said. “It felt good to be a part of something that was recognized worldwide.”
But in an instant, Phipps’ rise came crashing down in February 2000, when a 19-year-old man was shot and killed during an altercation at Phipps’ show at a nightclub in Slidell, Louisiana. The man later died. Investigators eventually took Phipps into custody after witnesses said he had a gun.
“I pulled my gun out as I ran for the door,” Phipps told CBS News. “And that was probably the biggest mistake I ever made. I would later learn that because people saw me with this gun, it was kind of why people were under the belief that maybe he did.“
Phipps was charged with first degree murder.
“It was all on MTV News,” he said. “I was never on MTV until I was charged.”
A member of Phipps’ entourage admitted to the shooting, but he says the confession fell on deaf ears.
At trial, prosecutors zeroed in on the same lyrics that made Phipps a star.
According to Phipps, prosecutors took the lyrics from two different songs out of context and spliced them together to make a statement. “One song was ‘Murda, Murda, Kill, Kill’ which was a straight battle rap. The other was a song called ‘Shell Shocked’ and the line they were referring to was actually a line about my dad. They said: ‘This young man said: Kill, kill, kill, kill, if you fuck with me, I’ll put a bullet in your brain.'”
A jury convicted Phipps of murder. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Erik Nielson, co-author of “Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America,” and professor at the University of Richmond, said rap lyrics have been used as evidence in more than 500 cases against artists since 1991: “Not only prosecutors cherry-pick lyrics and decontextualize them to serve their own purposes, but they often do so without any knowledge or understanding of rap music at all.”
He said that, unlike other genres, “rap music is the only fictional form, musical or otherwise, that has been targeted like this in the courts.”
Nielson called Phipps’ case one of the most horrific he’s ever seen.
“I’m not here to tell you somebody is guilty or innocent. I’m just here arguing for a person’s right to a fair trial,” Nielson said. “But I’ve always had one exception, and that exception is Mac Phipps.”
Former Georgia prosecutor Chris Timmons, who had no connection to Phipps’ trial, has tried more than 100 cases and has used rappers’ music videos to link them to criminal street gangs. “I didn’t use any of their lyrics,” he told “CBS Mornings.” “I didn’t feel any of their lyrics were relevant to [a specific] robbery. But what I used was the lyrics and the video to show that these people are in a relationship.”
Timmons sees the use of texts as a legal strategy.
“If you have a confession, if that confession rhymes, whether it’s set to music, if you’re a prosecutor, you want to use it,” he said. “Same with defense. You want to keep it out.”
Prosecutors in Fulton County, Georgia referenced several songs in, aka Young Thug, whose trial on charges of violence and gang activity allegedly related to the murder and theft begins this week. Williams has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
California Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed the Artistic Expression Decriminalization Act, which limits the ways in which an artist’s lyrics can be used against them as evidence in court. Similar legislation, the Restoring Artists Protection Act, or RAP Act, is being proposed at the federal level.
Phipps served 21 years of his 30-year sentence and was released from prison in 2021 after being granted clemency.
His album “Son of the City”, his first project since returning home from prison, debuted last October.
“I don’t have too many songs, if any, about prison life,” he said, “because the whole time I was in prison, I imagined I was free.”
Even after being released from prison, Phipps needs permission from a parole officer to leave Louisiana, or even be out after 9 p.m., to perform or travel across the country to advocate for legal reform.
“I can definitely say I’m more aware of the messages I want to convey to the audience,” Phipps said. “I would never censor myself, but I value my words more.”
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