The answers as to why a caged bird sings haven’t been discovered during Mckinley “Mac” Phipps’ 16-year prison stint for a killing he’s been adamant he didn’t commit.
Still to this very day, his resolve remains intact.
As a trusted Soldier in Master P’s independent label-defining No Limit army in the late 90s, Mac adhered to the roster’s New Orleans gumbo twang and mixed-in nimble punchlines the East Coast was heralded for at the time. His debut album, 1998’s Shell Shocked, was just the tipping point of his career promise.
Then, there was a dreadful night of February 2000 where Mac was ID’ed as the shooter of 19-year-old Barron C. Victor Jr. at a Slidell, LA nightclub. A year later on September 21, 2001, Mac was convicted of manslaughter but still given a 30-year sentence, akin to his initial prosecution charge of second-degree murder. As the Twin Towers fell in New York City, Mac was mentally distracted by his own looming fate hanging in the balance.
While speaking with HipHopDX, the now 38-year-old visionary and proud native of New Orleans’ 3rd Ward puts his road to redemption into perspective. There is currently an online petition picking up steam for his release. As you will come to learn, his case blurs the definition of a fair trial in its entirety.
The Elayn Hunt prison system allows for calls in 10-minute intervals before the other party is disconnected. We were able to have a full conversation that expanded on his current plight and all the aspiration that came with it.
Prison Life Pros & Cons
Mac says he hasn’t spoken with Master P in several years but he does have a granite-solid support group in his blood relatives and other former No Limit Soldiers.
“I would attribute most of my strength from my family,” he tells DX. “I’ve never been in a situation like this before and I’ll tell you if it wasn’t for the love and support of my family and friends, I don’t know if I’d ever be able to deal with this. I’ve actually met a lot of good people since I’ve been in prison. And I’ve just been humbled from the support that people have been showing me from all over the world and that support is what keeps me focusing on wanting to get out of here and home with my son.”
As a hard-working a prison trustee, Mac burns the hours by getting to move around a little bit, cleaning up and doing paperwork. Basketball and band practice help make the time pass faster. Earlier in the day, there was a bit of excitement for the prisoners as they were privy to a bit of entertainment.
“We had a boxing extravaganza and I was playing the keyboard for the band,” he says. “Bunch of old school songs. We have a good pretty band. Two or three guitars.”
It’s true that being in jail all this time has made Mac a better musician but he’d be leery to call it a blessing in disguise. But he did break down his newfound skills.
“What it did was give me time to focus on music from I guess an instrumental standpoint,” Mac offers. “I used to fool around with keyboards when I was on the streets and I always had my pre-production equipment at the house. And I actually produced a few tracks but [in here] I was able to learn how to really play a keyboard. And I picked up a bass and can hit a few notes but I’m not really a bass player. Same goes for the drums: I can hold a beat but I’m not really a drummer.”
Mac performing at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in Louisiana circa 2011
Before The Bars There Were Lyrical Bars
“I’ve been a Hip Hop fan all my whole life. Growing up, I guess the East Coast was the first thing that drew me in because my uncle Bean is the person who patterned my swag behind the stuff he liked. He was a New York Knicks fan, so I was a New York Knicks fan. He liked Public Enemy so I liked Public Enemy. One of his best friends was a guy named Sporty T from New Orleans. He was a rapper. Sporty was like the flyest guy in the neighborhood; he had the wickedest flow, he was a great basketball player and was the best dresser and he was somebody I looked up to. Because of him and my uncle, I started just writing little rhymes just trying to mimic him. And he was always listening to East Coast rappers and that’s what drew me in first.”
“In my teen years I started expanding my mind to West Coast rappers like N.W.A, MC Eiht—I used to love Eiht—and once Death Row came along, you already knew that was a whole ‘nother level. You had Snoop, you had Dr. Dre, Tha Dogg Pound but East Coast was always my foundation as a kid. And when I signed with No Limit, it was weird for my friends who I grew up rapping with me because that wasn’t even the type of rap that we listened to. But it was something about Percy and the thing he had going on at the time that made me feel comfortable. Even though I was outside of my musical element to an extent, I was drawn to it and I just tried to separate myself from everything they was doing by keeping that style that I always had.”
No Limit Records
The Tank is responsible for over 75 million albums being sold worldwide, which undoubtedly has changed millions of lives. Mac says his fondest memories are simply working on each other’s projects and he spoke in detail of his former label mates that he still keeps in close contact with.
“One of my favorite albums was Unlady Like,” Mac says of Mia X’s sophomore release. “I kind of felt played, she was spitting so hard. I was like ‘woow!’
“Mia actually came to visit in 2012. We had a Black History program and the then ‘The History of Hip Hop.’ So what better than to get some Hip Hop legends to come here and speak. So I got Mia to come, Mystikal came, KLC from Beats by the Pound and they had a blast. The fellas had a blast. They been asking me, ‘When Mia coming again?’ Because she speaks so well. She had a serious message. And we was trying to get her to come back in a couple of weeks for another program we have.
Mac’s No Limit releases Shell Shocked (top) & World War III
“The last time I think I talked to Master P was like 2009 or 08, one of the two,” Mac expounds. “I spoke to Silkk [The Shocker] the other day and he said he was doing alright. Of course me and C [Murder] kept in touch over the years. I actually haven’t written him in a few months but that’s my heart. C has been a dear friend to me since day one. I talk to Fiend here and there, kept in contact with KL over the years, I talk to [Mr.] Serv-On every now and then. And my partner Samm, I kind of brought him on board to No Limit right before I got incarcerated.
“It would take me all night to go into the damn details of this case,” he said with a laugh but even after all these years, he knows the key facts readily off hand:
“No murder weapon was ever found. The state had about two witnesses who told conflicting stories and one of them even, in court on the stand, admitted that she did not tell the truth about what she really saw and eventually she would tell the reporters of the Huff Post that she was coerced at the time to even make the accusation in the first place. She was threatened by the prosecution and DA at the time. And by the way, that DA is under federal indictment at this time. His name is Walter Reed. He’s been indicted for unrelated federal charges that have nothing to do with my case but it just shows the pattern of misconduct from the department.”
“We had a guy who confessed to it twice at least two or three times. He went to the sheriff willingly on his own and their reaction was like, ‘We have already received information that someone would come forth and take the rap!’ That was their statement to the news.
“What was interesting was they never presented the so-called information because, y’know, that never happened, but just the idea of the information tainted me in the mind of any potential jurors before trial. It painted the picture as if I was this notorious mobster who was so ruthless and so feared that someone would come forward and take responsibility for my actions. Or people was so loyal to me that they would be willing to take responsibility for my actions. And I’m like, ‘That shit sound good in theory but let’s be real’ [Laughs]
It can be assumed that having the most prominent suspect in handcuffs would be considered a big fish for the prosecution. After all, this is the type of case that turns cops into chiefs, lawyers in the judges and so on. Mac has thoughts on what went wrong in the case and he openly shared them.
“I can’t get into their minds and I don’t know what their reasons were but I will say I think they initially believed that it was my party and heard the fight broke-out with members of my entourage. So I would go ahead and give them the benefit of the doubt that they initially thought they were pursuing the right person.
“But then the investigation started, and if you’re a seasoned detective, you know how to figure out when someone is not being factual or doesn’t really know. In most cases you supposed to investigate and then arrest. In my case they arrested and then went to investigate. Then they realized I wasn’t the person who did it but by then, I don’t think they was willing to get back on the news and tell the whole world I wasn’t the person who did it.
“Nobody wanted to believe that the DA’s office is making mistakes. The citizens want to be believe that they are prosecuting the people who need to be prosecuted and I just think it was more of that than just me being a rapper.
Mac & fellow bandmates circa 2010
“I am not against police officers but I just think sometimes citizens paint police in this saintly or perfect picture that doesn’t make mistakes and we don’t realize that these people are human. And because we expect perfection from them, they feel the need to keep that image that they know what we think of them. It’s almost like they rather make something up than admit wrongdoing.”
Loving To Pimp A Butterfly & “Sallie Mae Back”
The prison’s JPay system allows for inmates to listen to downloaded music only through their assigned tablets, not exactly making it ideal to keep a sweltering library of the latest MP3s. When asked about Hip Hop 2K16, Mac says he dibbles and dabbles when he can but he does have a fond appreciation for two MCs who are currently considered amongst the culture’s leading voices but torchbearers of the old guard of rappers in terms of lyrical substance.
“Kendrick Lamar is the bomb,” Mac says. “I heard the entire [the DX-perfected rated] To Pimp a Butterfly album and was proud of the young man. Just happy to hear somebody take it there at the height of the career. He was at the top of his game and he could have easily made some club songs or some more hits and he just went totally left. Because so, he was rewarded. It was brilliant. It was like from the Pharcyde; it was totally left field. But I think because it was so different from his first album, it was so brilliant and he was rewarded for it. So I was glad to see that.”
And the same admiration goes to his New Orleans brethren, Dee-1.
“I don’t even think Dee was even born. I think someone just dropped him off from the sky and left him on somebody’s doorstep to be artistic [Laughs]. Rarely in life do you keep up with someone who has a genuinely good spirit like that. I like Dee’s style and I’m biased to all his music. Like someone can ask me ‘How do you view him lyrically?’ and I’m like ‘Nigga, that’s Dee!’”
That being said, Mac says he doesn’t exactly revisit his own music, a practice that started even when was actively recording as a free man.
Genius recently ran a story that featured professor Erik Nielson incredulously describing how the prosecution in Mac’s case spliced two separate songs to make his studio persona sound 10x more menacing.
When looking back, the frustration is obviously still prevalent and it doesn’t take much to evoke emotion. Yet, he still has a levelheaded answer for what may be perceived as a miscarriage of justice.
“I think a fair trial is always a possibility,” he says. “However, we can not deny that our perception—to a certain extent—plays a major role in the decisions that we make. And we’re in a place that was relatively rural, in terms of the jury’s background and they were all white and predominately over 35 or 40 [years old] at the time.
“So here you have have an all-white, predominately over 35-years-old jury from a rural area in America. And then you have this young African American from New Orleans, a place many of them despise because of their perception of people from New Orleans. On top of that, I was a so-called “gangsta rapper” who a lot of them attribute a lot of society’s ills to. So with that ill recipe, I think my trial ended before the deliberation began. If you already perceive me as ‘thoughtless and aggressive’, then it really don’t matter what I present to you in my defense.
“And I won’t say that I believe that these people convicted me because I’m an African American, because that would suggest that they are racists. And I’m not a person who believes that at the start people are racist. But prejudice on the other hand, it’s a different story. I do feel that those people prejudged. And if you have a preconceived notion of who you think I am or what I am, then we can’t deny that plays a role in your decision making. And that’s what I feel happened in my case. I didn’t have a jury of my peers. I didn’t have a jury of nobody’s peers except for predominately rural-minded, white people.”
Mac receiving an award circa 2012
Petition To Freedom
As of press time, the petition for Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards to grant Mac clemency for the case is nearing 8,000 supporters and is still asking for more.
Although the clemency won’t expunge his record, Mac just wishes to be home and unlike many individuals who would harbor bitterness, he’s not seeking retribution.
“There’s nothing they can pay me for those years. Those years are gone, man. I just want to be with my family. Everything else is irrelevant to me. My son wasn’t even born when I came to prison; his mom was like six months pregnant. So I literally watched him grow an inch taller each time he came to visit. Now he’s gotten tall, his voice done changed. He’ll be 16 next month. And our conversations went from ‘Dad, dad!’ to ‘Wassup.’ The last time I asked my son about school, he was like ‘Yeah, yeah, I ain’t even trippin’ off of none of that. What them people saying about you getting out of here?’ That’s how long I’ve been in here. My son talks to me like that now. [Laughs]
“It’s a struggle but it’s worth it. It’s worth it,” he concludes without a hint of doubt in his voice.