“I would just like people to know the truth about who I am,” declares McKinley Phipps, Jr. Since 2000, others have spoken for the man in books, interviews, and docuseries. McKinley’s lifelong nickname, Mac, is one that he used to release several high-profile albums, nearly entering the Top 10 of the pop charts during the late 1990s. At the height of his fame, the devoted New Orleans artist was convicted for a crime he did not commit. After 21 years behind bars, McKinley Phipps, Jr. gets to tell his story, mentor others to avoid similar pitfalls, and prepare new music.
Phipps grew up in Uptown, just three blocks from the Magnolia projects. He and his five siblings spent many of their days at their grandmother’s residence on General Taylor. Nicknamed Mac just like his father, a Vietnam War veteran, Phipps remembers a warm childhood. “Our parents always showed us love. We didn’t have much growing up, but we had love.” Even as a child, Mac took to music. He was fascinated with New Edition and seeing boys, just a bit older than he, captivating the spotlight. “I began writing songs when I was like 7. When I was 10, I formed a group in my neighborhood,” he recalls. “It just continued from there.” As Hip-Hop was getting more advanced, Mac was especially inspired by Rakim—whose vocabulary and references prompted the boy to consult encyclopedias. Mac formed groups, created routines, and entered talent shows. One led to an opportunity with Yo! Records. Although it was unpaid, the local label put Mac in the studio. At 12, he released Lyrical Midget, produced by Mannie Fresh and Gregory D. A pre-fame Mannie taught the adolescent to structure his verses. “My approach to songwriting became a combination of metaphors and similes with a dab of storytelling.”
As a teen, Mac solidified himself among the city’s talents. In 1996, he featured on a Kane & Abel album. Despite years in music, the No Limit album appearance marked the first time Mac got paid for his craft. As Master P’s label rapidly expanded, he offered to sign Mac. “I added a different element,” he says of the roster that included Snoop Dogg, Mystikal, and Silkk The Shocker. “I was that lyrical MC.” In 1998, Shell Shocked arrived, reaching #11 on the Billboard Top 200. On the cover, Mac wore the Army jacket of a family friend who died in combat. Mac’s dreams of rap stardom in the bedroom mirror came to fruition as he performed for arena crowds of 20,000. He followed up with World War III along with writing 504 Boyz hit “Wobble Wobble.”
However, as things were taking off, fate and injustice crashed the party. On February 21, 2000, a fight broke out moments before a local Mac concert left a 19-year-old man dead. Then, now, and every day in between, Mac has maintained his innocence while showing respect and sympathy to the victim’s family. Phipps believes he represented “a big fish” to local authorities, who seemed more interested in closing the case to a high-profile news story than adequately investigating. An all-white jury convicted McKinley for 30 years on a manslaughter charge. With a baby on the way (later becoming McKinley Phipps, III), Mac’s life and career were taken away.
Behind bars, McKinley Phipps grew up. “I never wanted to become blackhearted or a bitter person, ever,” he insists. Instead, Mac set a great example. While Phipps’ family, friends, and some rap peers fought for his freedom, Mac won the prisoner-voted Humanitarian Award, mentored young men, and wrote to those in power. He was granted clemency with a unanimous vote by the Louisiana parole board and Governor John Bel Edwards. “It was confirmation that everything I set out to do I had accomplished. I just really wanted people to know who I was,” says the man who was once portrayed in courts and the media by his camouflage, song titles, and hard-nosed lyrics. Mac has diligently worked to defend his character and his name.
Despite the support of powerful people on Mac’s behalf, his release date dragged on without direction. In the final days of his stay, while working with welders on a ship, Mac finished writing one of the hundreds of songs he had penned behind bars. “21 Summers” began as a song McKinley started in 1999, modeled after New Edition’s “I’m Coming Home.” As something he had written and rewritten over the next 21 years, the song took on new meaning. A great artist looked at his life, his time, and 21 years of patiently waiting to be a father, a husband, a son, a mentor, and an artist, and the words flowed to the page. On June 22, 2021, Mac was released.
Since his return home, McKinley Phipps, Jr. remains motivated to help others. He has partnered with the Youth Empowerment Project — a program designed to mentor kids to avoid going down the path that lands them in prison. Mac is unafraid to tell his story to anyone who will benefit. One of the most talented storytellers and songwriters of a Hip-Hop movement offers that story in his new album, Son of the City. At a time when prison reform and injustices are in the spotlight, McKinley Phipps is an example of someone who has suffered but channels his pain and loss for others. In doing so, he is out to reach others and display his calling as an elite storyteller.