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Did Mac Dre Really Go to Prison Because of His Lyrics?

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A woman looks at the camera while holding a drawing of a man with a goatee and a backwards baseball cap.
Wanda Salvatto holding a painting of her late son, Bay Area hip-hop icon Mac Dre, in Vallejo on Monday, June 26th, 2023.  (Raphaël Timmons/KQED)

Read a transcript of this episode. 

One of the biggest stories in hip-hop right now is set to play out in a courtroom later this year, when Atlanta rapper Young Thug goes on trial for gang-related activities. One of the key pieces of evidence cited in the indictment are his rap lyrics.

The phenomenon of rap songs being played in court dates back to the early ’90s, with an early example happening in the Bay Area during the trial of one of the region’s most famous rappers, Vallejo’s own Mac Dre.

There’s a lot of lore around what happened during Mac Dre’s trial, so as part of That’s My Word, KQED’s yearlong project on Bay Area hip-hop history, Bay Curious set out to discover what really happened.

A young career, derailed

Before Mac Dre helped pioneer the hyphy movement and put the Bay Area’s hip-hop scene on the national map, he was a rising young rapper. He was barely out of high school and already had several hits to his name, like 1991’s “California Livin’,” a progenitor to the sun-soaked G-funk of Tupac’s later hit “California Love.”

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But in March 1992, that burgeoning career came to an abrupt halt. Mac Dre and two friends were arrested while they were driving back to Vallejo from a trip to Fresno. His friends were charged with attempted robbery and Dre was charged with conspiracy to rob a bank.

No bank was robbed while they were in Fresno, but the police were surveilling the men through a wired informant, and they arrested Mac Dre for planning to rob a bank. He was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison.

It’s been reported and widely circulated that the lyrics to his anti-police song, “Punk Police,” were used against him in court, and that the song helped convict him. But there’s a nagging contradiction at the heart of that belief. Namely, in the song “Punk Police,” Mac Dre says multiple times that he’s not a criminal. The song includes the lyrics, “I’m a dope rhyme dealer, not a money stealer.” So how could this song be connected to the conspiracy charge?

The song’s impact before the trial

According to Wanda Salvatto, Mac Dre’s mother, to understand the role “Punk Police” played in Mac Dre’s trial, you need to go way back to the early ’80s when Mac Dre was a funny, optimistic kid who liked to rap.

“He kind of had the gift of gab. The gift of words and playing on words,” she said. “I’d say around 15, 16, 17, he always wrote rhymes and raps, and for Christmas that was stuff that he would ask for — a microphone, a keyboard.”

While in high school, Dre made some friends who liked to rap from another part of Vallejo called the Country Club Crest, or the Crest for short. Dre grew up in an upper middle-class neighborhood in Vallejo, but the Crest, on the northern edge of the city, was in decline. Across the nation, technological advancements and the outsourcing of jobs overseas decimated manufacturing industries such as steel, auto and meat-packing. Lower-paying service industry jobs replaced manufacturing ones, and this had a profound economic effect on Black neighborhoods like the Crest. For many people, employment and steady income became precarious, paving the way for crime and gang violence to take root.

Ray Luv, a rapper and close friend of Mac Dre’s at the time, remembers that period well, and living among the North Bay’s wealthy wine region.

“So you live in the ghetto in the middle of all of this wealth, but you don’t get to participate,” he said. “So drug dealing, prostitution, pimping, car thefts, jewelry store robberies, that became a thing. And most of the people that were doing it were in high school. They were kids, but they were kids that felt desperate. Felt hopeless. Felt like, ‘When I turn 18, what am I going to do?’”

Mac Dre’s friends started selling weed and crack cocaine to make money, and eventually Mac Dre got entangled in it.

“He would go there in the Crest and do it and come home,” Wanda remembered. “My whole thing was, ‘I’m going to work to provide, you know, there’s really no need for you to sell weed.’ Eventually, I understood he was doing it because of peer pressure.”

Paper photographs of young Black men lay on a table. In the top photo a man is pictured seated, wearing a dark grey sweat suit and a black Oakland Raiders cap.
Family photos of Mac Dre belonging to his mother, Wanda Salvatto, laid out on a table in Vallejo on Monday, June 26, 2023. (Raphaël Timmons/KQED)

Dre got arrested and ended serving time in juvenile hall while he was still in high school. When he got out, he doubled down on his music. But now that he’d been in the system, he was being stopped and interrogated by the police more often.

“They were watching and harassing him, and it was just constant,” Wanda remembered.

Fed up with how the police were treating him, Mac Dre decided to use his music to air out his frustrations. In 1992, he released the song “Punk Police” detailing his relationship with the police at that time.

“Stop — I can’t take no mo’
Why is the police steady knocking at my do’?
24/7, the devils be trippin’
They say some banks was robbed and I fit the description
But that’s drama, so save it for your mama
I’m not criminal minded, punk police, I’m a
Dope rhyme dealer, not a money stealer”

It might seem prescient that Mac Dre was rapping about being accused of robbing a bank before he actually faced charges. But what Mac Dre is referring to in the song is a spate of unsolved bank robberies that had been taking place in and around Vallejo. The police were suspicious of an alleged gang they called the Romper Room, which was the name Mac Dre and his friends gave themselves.

“The Romper Room crew is a circle of friends,” said Ray Luv. He says they got the name from a children’s show that ran on public television. “It was really about friendship and loyalty. The Romper Room were the first real supporters of Mac Dre.”

But in the eyes of the police, the Romper Room was not a crew of friends but a gang of criminals, and they routinely stopped them and conducted raids where they lived. So, at 21 years old, Mac Dre released “Punk Police” in response to what he saw as unwarranted harassment.

Professor and hip-hop historian Davey D remembers when the song came out.

“Everybody loved it. It was our version of ‘F*** the Police.’ Knowing what the police were doing in Vallejo and going up to the Crest, I think most people could relate to it,” he said.

Wanda, however, remembers the backlash.

“My youngest son, who was 11 years [younger than Dre], he’d be outside playing or we’d be in the garage doing whatever and police would just be cruising through, just to let us know, they’re watching,” she said. “Before the song came out, police didn’t come in this neighborhood. There was really no reason to. But because of that, that’s when the real harassment really started.”

The trial of Mac Dre

The same year that the song was released, Mac Dre was arrested for conspiracy to rob a bank in Fresno. The trial lasted one week, and according to court transcripts, “Punk Police” was played, but it was not central to the prosecution’s case.

I spoke to one of the prosecuting attorneys and he confirmed that their case hinged on two main pieces of evidence: an audio recording from the informant, in which Mac Dre can be heard saying “shoot out the surveillance cameras,” and a gun that was found during a raid on Mac Dre’s apartment several months prior. They were able to trace the bullets of the gun to one of the prior unsolved bank robberies in Vallejo.

Mac Dre’s lawyer countered that most of the audio recording was hard to hear and that the clip of Mac Dre was taken out of context — it could have been a rap or a joke. (In his 2022 autobiography, J. Diggs, one of Mac Dre’s co-defendants, says that Dre was making a joke.) As for the gun, Mac Dre’s lawyer pointed out that the weapon was not registered in his name nor did it have Mac Dre’s fingerprints on it, emphasizing that it could belong to anybody as multiple people were sleeping at Mac Dre’s apartment at the time of the raid.

“Punk Police” made a brief appearance in the trial. According to court transcripts, the prosecution played the song to establish that the police were not retaliating against Mac Dre because of it. One of the prosecutors called a detective to the stand and asked, “Was there and is there a campaign against Mr. Andre Hicks to prosecute him because of this song?” The detective responded, “No,” after which the prosecutor concluded his questioning.

After less than a day of deliberation, the jury came back with a guilty verdict.

“We were devastated,” Wanda said. “Andre didn’t rob any banks. We thought, you know, it would all work out. But it didn’t.”

Ray Luv wasn’t convinced by the evidence used against Dre.

“I think in most cases that probably would not stick. If he was a white kid from Mill Valley, Marin County, he would not have gone to prison on that evidence,” he said.

Despite the detective’s testimony at the trial, to those connected to the case and who saw it play out in real time, the connection between “Punk Police” and Mac Dre’s conviction is obvious.

“To this day, I will say that it was a clapback to the ‘Punk Police’ song,” said Davey D. “It’s kind of like, ‘Okay. We’ll find something on you. You’re going to slip up and we’re going to be there to catch you.’”

Interior of a recording studio, with 3 men standing side by side in the midfield. One man sits in the foreground with his back to the camera.
Mac Dre (standing center) in the studio with some friends after being released from prison in 1996. (Courtesy of Wanda Salvatto)

Dre’s legacy and rap lyrics on trial

Mac Dre was released from prison in 1996 after serving four years of his five-year sentence. He hit the ground running and was more prolific in making music than ever, releasing 10 albums in less than 10 years. He introduced a style of party music, known as hyphy, that would become synonymous with the Bay Area and gain popularity across the country.

Then in 2004, while performing in Kansas City, he was killed in a drive-by shooting. The details around his death have remained murky, with various unofficial reports from media outlets pointing to different suspects. The official police investigation, however, came up empty, and no one was ever charged for his murder.

While his lyrics may not have convicted him, Mac Dre’s case was one of the first to introduce rap lyrics during criminal proceedings. His case contributed to the antagonistic relationship that exists between hip-hop and the criminal justice system — one where art, most often the art of Black men, can be taken as an admission of guilt. (Just a few years after Mac Dre’s trial, Sacramento rappers C-Bo and X-Raided were both put behind bars after their lyrics were introduced as evidence in court.)

Charis Kubrin, a criminologist and UC Irvine professor, says the reason that the use of rap lyrics in trials is so concerning is because they could be used to exploit existing racial biases.

“What’s happening in the minds of jurors, we think, are that folks are saying, ‘gosh, if someone could write these kinds of lyrics, they could do these kinds of crimes,’” she said. “Now, nobody thinks that with other music genres, or nobody’s thinking Quentin Tarantino is doing that with his violent films. But when it comes to rap music, it’s much easier to make that leap. And that’s because of stereotypes and biases that we have about young men of color who are primarily making the music.”

There are signs of change, however. In 2022, California lawmakers passed AB 2799, becoming the first state to prohibit the use of rap lyrics in criminal trials. Kubrin says it’s a good first step, but more can be done.

As for Mac Dre, even in his absence his legacy continues to grow. Every year, on July 5, people come together to celebrate his birthday, “Mac Dre Day,” in San Francisco.

His old friend Ray Luv is currently the Chief Operating Officer of Thizz Entertainment, the label that Mac Dre founded to distribute his music, and he helps organize the yearly Mac Dre Day celebrations.

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“In the beginning, when his career was taking off, he was sent to jail,” Ray Luv said. “Then he came home from jail and when his career starts taking off, he ended up getting killed. That’s a part of why I think we all toast him so much. The guy never really did too much wrong for what he received from this world. He was a good guy.”

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