Flooding mass social media channels in music has been the incarceration of YSL Records members, specifically Young Thug and Gunna, who will have rap lyrics used to connect the dots in an ongoing RICO case. Gunna has since been released on bail. However, it wasn’t the first time it happened. Hip-Hop heads remember, but some may not of Snoop Dogg’s murder case in the mid-90s; closing arguments for the prosecution included his hit single “Murder Was the Case” to set a tone. 1990 saw 2 Live Crew have lyrics used to represent their raunchy nature in an obscenity trial. Shyne shot off his gun in a Manhattan Club, and New York City prosecutors fought to use his lyrics at his trial, which they lost. And then, there’s the Mac Phipps murder trial in Louisiana, a prolific case that shifted the perception between artistic expression and reality – the prosecution retooled his lyrics and manipulated the jury to paint a violent persona, leading to his eventual incarceration. It’s all at the focal point of the latest ABC News short documentary, Rap Trap: Hip-Hop On Trial.
According to a study by Andrea Dennis and Erik Nielson, we’ve had lyrics used in trials at least 500+ times — Nielson would later note in the documentary as well —this includes some prolific ones like the ones I’ve mentioned up top. It’s scapegoating a genre because of the prominence with which certain content gets relayed. They are speaking their truth, and not seen as that, instead seen as a form of influential glorification. But in tradition with the systematic racism faced throughout the years, it’s a continuation because of further consequences and limiting the voice of the voiceless. Hip-Hop is one of the hottest genres today. Rock used to be and has seen similar pushback; since, the genre’s history with the legal system have become more fragments of the past that don’t get remembered by the many following the Young Thug and Gunna trial. For example, Dee Snider’s, or rather Rock’s, trial during the PMRC(Parents Resource Center)/Senate hearings about the thematic nature of rock music and its image, which, Twisted Sister’s in particular, got deemed as “Porn Rock.” Or when Judas Priest got sued by two sets of parents, they believed there was subliminal message in their cover of “Better By You, Better than Me” that influenced two young men to commit suicide as part of a pact. I’m not downplaying its importance as they came out with a significant win for music, but with the way music spreads, their relevancy didn’t match the heights of Hip-Hop artists like Young Thug and Gunna. But it’s important to note that, while Hip-Hop is the new target, counter-culture music has been a target since it doesn’t reflect the nature a perfect society.
Rap Trap: Hip-Hop On Trial doesn’t express this because, as it has been since, these moments are prolific to the genre and music, but its stamping in popular music, and the culture, isn’t like Hip-Hop, where the violence bleeds into Hot 100 radio and the mainstream Hip-Hop channels. Look at Hot97 or New York City Mayor Eric Adams, with their “feud” with Drill music and the violent connotations that they seemed to have correlated with gang-related deaths in New York City. These past situations with music and the legal system are well documented; some don’t have the preservation of today, with social media and bloggers and because of that distinction coming from a history of systematic racism manipulating how much of a voice the black communities have. It’s important to know what separates the two, as we get hints of it in the documentary. It gets beautifully represented when we see the reactions from Phipps and his sister when they heard his lyrics rearranged to manipulate the jury into believing he’s cold blooded.
It’s one of the few reasons Hip-Hop has had the brut of it all; it had constant condemnation for its bleak and violent depictions of their reality or as a scapegoat for encouraging this type of life aesthetic filled with violence and hustling drugs. As Fat Joe would say about his lyrics in Rap Trap: Hip-Hop On Trial, “80-90% of the stuff I said I made up.” The man known as Joey Crack has rapped about his adolescence, his youth, and what surrounded him in The Bronx at the time, and the same could get said about others, who often use them as hypotheticals to boast their strength as MCs or rappers in the game. We’ve heard this auspicious bravado of depth through varying thematic channels, like the political prowess of Public Enemy or the fantastic storytelling in reality (Gangsta) rap, and today with flexing lyrical prowess and speaking about mental health. Though focused on Phipps’ trial, it sets a foundation for the lyrical depth through those varying styles, keeping you in the know for how they used the art form to have a voice for their people. We get interviews from artists who’ve seen it throughout their lives and their relevance to the idea that the outcries and convictions have been surface layer. You hear from Will.i.am, who started under Eazy-E and Ruthless Records, Fat Joe, YSL Artist Karlae, and producer Dun Deal. It’s limited in scope, making it a slight hindrance, but they offer enough depth, which might influence you to read more.
Instead of trying to relay hours upon hours of information, it uses Mac Phipps as a parallel to Young Thug, who will have his lyrics used to paint a description of his character and connect Thug to a murder via placing the order. It recounts Phipps’ trial, his quick rise with newly established No Limit Records, and his life post-release, following clemency (parole) by the governor at the time with grace, allowing us to see how shifty the eyes on Hip-Hop are. It gives it to us through a humanistic perspective, disavowing this attack on a minority lead genre, as people can’t understand the difference between artistic expression and reality. The documentary looks to dismantle the layers behind the abhorrent, racial attack Hip-Hop continues to have as people look for ways to push this narrative that correlates it to street violence – for the YSL case, it was looking for a correlation with the rise in gang violence during the pandemic in Atlanta.
It doesn’t linger much on describing the Young Thug charges in full, considering it’s been months since their arrests — with their popularity, the assumption is, you know about the Enterprise rental car, which got used for a murder Thug allegedly ordered, and racketeering. It focuses on the reactions and the humanization of artists who establish a prosperous life but can’t evade the past from connecting links mentally and musically. There’s still a difference, and unfortunately, a rapper can’t simply hide behind the artistic freedom in Hip-Hop since being argumentative or delivering profound work will not move the needle any further. It’s all seen on the surface layer, and it does a great job providing that argument as it contrasts how people react to Hip-Hop lyrics as opposed to that from more established and safer genres, like Rock and Pop.
Rap Trap: Hip-Hop On Trial is an alacritous stepping stone that discerns Hip-Hop’s history with the legal system. It’s trying to relay enough information without leaving you hanging dry. It keeps you engaged by articulating a story that speaks volumes to the disrespect and homogenization of the people who make Hip-Hop, never seeing them as artistic equals. We see Mac Phipps’s highs, lows, and eventual freedom as this tale continues to show the limits to one’s freedom of speech. Hip-Hop artists have the freedom to express, but at the same time, they have to be extra privy to the consequences. It’s giving you this eloquently, and with proper direction, it allows you to understand the situation without feeling like something is missing. As much as I will be recommending this, I implore you to seek out and listen to Louder Than A Riot, a podcast by NPR, hosted by Rodney Carmichael and Sidney Madden, that goes deeper into Mac Phipps and other cases, like DJ Drama’s and Bobby Schmurda’s.