Rap on Trial

When a defendant has performed rap lyrics about crime in songs and videos, is that evidence of real criminality?

| Fall 2017

  • Rappers create a stage name in order to reflect an artistic persona to their audience. Carlton Ridenhour, featured above, is famously recognized by his rapper name Chuck D.
    Photo by Flickr/Kowarski
  • Lyrics which reference weapons and violent confrontations can be found in both country and rap songs, but the public views these references as more offensive and threatening when present in rap songs.
    Photo courtesy The Kingston Trio

On the evening of June 12, 2012, 19-year-old Melvin Vernell III, a rapper who went by the name Lil Phat, was shot to death in a parking lot outside an Atlanta-area hospital. At the time, his girlfriend was inside giving birth to their daughter.

Investigators identified the motive as retaliation for a drug theft. They said Vernell had stolen 10 pounds of marijuana from two men, Gary Bradford and Decensae White, the latter a former college basketball star who had played for Bobby Knight at Texas Tech for a bit before landing at San Francisco State University.

Bradford, investigators concluded, was a gang leader who had ordered the murder. Prosecutors charged him with seven counts related to the crime, and he went to trial in the summer of 2014.

In the case against Bradford, Fulton County, Ga., prosecutors introduced statements from a powerful figure: Eldorado Red, Bradford’s alter ego. It’s both the name by which Bradford was known on the streets and under which he recorded rap music with dreams of making it big. Eldorado Red is brash and menacing, a remorseless career criminal. In music videos released on YouTube, he parades around in red colors associated with the Bloods, a violent street gang, flashing weapons and stacks of cash from the seats of expensive cars.

“I’m El Jefe,” Eldorado Red brags in “I Supply Your Town,” a song about selling drugs. “Meet the dealer. Bricks and pounds when I come around.”

In another song, called “I Got 100 Shooters,” Eldorado Red warns, “Go against the mob, you get your ass knocked off.”

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