“They found me guilty as an accomplice to murder and a co-conspirator for felony murder and robbery, which they had no proof of whatsoever.” Max B is talking on the phone from Bergen County Prison in New Jersey, where he’s serving out a 40-year sentence for these charges. The offenses relate to an incident on September 22nd, 2006, when a man named David Taylor was shot and killed as Max B’s fellow defendants Gina Conway and Kelvin Leerdam attempted to rob Taylor and his associate Allan Plowden of $30,000 at a Holiday Inn in Fort Lee, New Jersey. It’s a spell of incarceration the rapper is appealing — not least because he says he was back home in New York when the fatal robbery took place. Max B is confident his appeal will be approved, and estimates he could be a free man as early as this July.
In the interim, he’s just released Vigilante Season, his debut album via the Amalgam Digital label. Recorded before he was locked up, the project sees Max, who came to prominence by helping one-time Dipset capo Jim Jones write 2006’s summer smash single “We Fly High (Ballin’),” teaming up with the producer Dame Grease, who crafted many of DMX’s early hits. (According to Amalgam Digital’s DJ Next, Jones sent out a cease and desist order when Max B attempted to sign to the label, claiming that he still owned rights to Max B’s contract; following a lawsuit, a judge ruled against Jones’s claim.) Unable to promote the album and its first single, “Money Make Me Feel Better,” in person, Max B says, “We just got to ride on this one, hopefully it do good and I can come out and give you the next one and be behind it 100%.”
In the days leading up to the album’s release, Max B engaged in two phone calls from Bergen County Prison to speak about the rigors of his incarceration, anomalies in his trial, the perceived foulness of the New Jersey prison system, and the days when he held down a pre-rap nine-to-five at the World Trade Center.
How has today been for you?
Today’s been alright, it was a cool day, nice outside, got a little fresh air. Now I’m back in the hole ready to get ready for the tournament, this NCAA game, UConn against Butler. CT, stand up! That my second home from home, Connecticut, I used to spend a lot of time there.
Can you remember what your first night in Bergen County Prison was like?
First night was horrible. After I blew trial, I had to come in fresh off the street, man. I blew trial, I was fresh at the table, the judges were telling me I’m guilty and reading me my counts, then I’m taking off my jewelry and getting ready to walk to a prison van. The weekend before that I was having a ball. It was my birthday weekend, I was in Connecticut — I had a venue party sold-out show. Then coming to prison to hear a guilty verdict? First night was tough. But I got over it, I’m good.
Do you get treated differently in prison because you’re a rapper?
Absolutely. It’s a little overwhelming at times, ’cause some dudes, when I go out, some guys run up on me like, “You Max B?” They have that face on them — some could be fans, some could be enemies, some could be like groupies — and it’s a little overwhelming. But in here, I just stay with my guys. I pray at night that every time I go out, it’s not crazy, no violence, no rah-rah stuff. I pray for calm nights.
Do you get wannabe rappers trying to battle you in prison?
These guys respect me in here. I set the example for the guys in here. I already established myself, and looking at my career, I’m not a battle rapper. But just with me going to prison twice [Max B previously served eight years in prison for robbery charges] and accomplishing what I have accomplished, guys in prison truly respect what I’ve done. They try to find ways to get with me in the future and work together in the future. I don’t battle.
Have any other rappers or artists been to visit you since you’ve been locked up?
French [Montana] came to see me. Shout out to Frenchy. But that’s it, man. My visits are real exclusive, I keep it close, just family. But just ’cause they don’t visit or write me don’t mean they don’t love me. I really don’t want too much attention when I’m down on the visit — I like to enjoy the company of my kids and my mother. I keep my business real exclusive.
What’s the biggest rumor you’ve heard about yourself since you’ve been in prison?
The biggest rumor that I heard was that I was actually home. I heard that a couple of weeks ago. There are no real big rumors about me — I put it all out there, people know about me. But yeah, a couple of weeks ago somebody said I was actually home. That’s not true, as we can actually see.
What was your first reaction when you heard the guilty verdict?
I just wanted to cry, I ain’t gonna even lie, man, I wanted to cry. That’s probably the most hurtfullest disappointment ever in my life to hear that verdict. I was on the cover of Hip-Hop Weekly — I don’t know if you saw it or not — but my eyes was like bloodshot red. I just couldn’t believe it. It was unbelievable that I got caught up in this nonsense and my culpability was next to nothing and they still found a way to trap me in the system. It’s horrific. It’s indescribable. It’s a painful feeling. But I was good in two days.
Was there a point in the trial when you started to realize that a guilty verdict might be coming?
I always thought that was a possibility from the day I was arrested, from like how the police even racked me up in this joint. I always kept it 50-50: if I beat it, I beat it; if I don’t, I don’t. I left it in God’s hands. I guess he got a plan for me to go through this and see what I got to see before I get out. It’s crazy.
Some reports say you were sentenced to 75 years in prison. Was it hard to process such a high number of years?
Well it’s actually 40, but it’s the same thing to me, ’cause I’m 30 so I’ll be an old man anyway. First thing I thought was, ” It is what it is — now let me get up out this joint.” I mean I already knew what my time was gonna be two years prior if I was found guilty — I was out on the street knowing what I would be facing. But I ain’t lose yet, I’m in the appellate courts. And if I lose that I can go to he Supreme Court, all the way up. As much time as they make me spend in here, I’ll spend it fighting.
Do you ever replay the events of the day the robbery happened in your head?
Actually, yeah, I replay it, but it’s hard to replay it ’cause when it happened I wasn’t there! You know what I’m saying? I was in New York as the crime occurred, so I mean… I go back and replay things I could have done different that day. It was just so delicate, and the universe is so screwed up it’s probably something I could have said or one little call that could have changed the whole course of events. But it didn’t work that way.
How is the appeal coming along?
Everything is done, all my appeal work is finished, so they told me I’ll hear a decision and know if I got it.
Do you know what that will be?
I say around the summer, around June or July roughly I’ll hear my decision and know if I get my new trial again. If I get the reversal, I’ll be back home shortly.
What’s the basis of your appeal?
The basis of my appeal is like a whole other system. They found me guilty as an accomplice to murder and a coconspirator for felony murder and robbery, which they had no proof of whatsoever. Not only was I not there, but if you’re trying to convict somebody as an accomplice, the state’s job is to show that you share the intent as the person who did the crime. They haven’t did that. So based on the insufficient evidence and the judge and state’s failure — ’cause the gave all kinds of instructions to the jury, and inappropriate unfair tactics to the court room — that right there can get me reversed and a new trial. All they proved was conspiracy to a death — nothing else they proved, nothing.
Is it a frustrating time, waiting to hear the verdict of the appeal?
Yeah, but I would never go crazy inside this joint. I’m a warrior. I would never lose my mind behind these walls. I just pray, stay by myself, mind my business, keep in touch with my family. I’m not bent out of shape — that’s just giving in and admitting defeat. Oh no, I will never admit defeat under those circumstances. My mind is intact. My thinking is straight. I know what I got to do.
Do you regret helping the police out with their inquiries into the case?
I don’t know. It wasn’t even nothing. That’s not even why I got caught or nothing like that. I don’t know, I didn’t really help the officers out — that’s kind of a wrong story, a wrong turn. They came and questioned me about me, about the whereabouts of my codefendant [Gina Conway] at the time, and I told them I didn’t know where she was at. If you wanna call that cooperation or helping the police, so be it.
If you could say anything to the judge who sentenced you, what would it be?
Huh, I’ma keep that to myself! I’m a keep it real though, ’cause it’s not even personal. The judge is the judge, he sentence people to life every day. I’m sure whatever I would say to him wouldn’t change events. I’m not mad at the judge — I don’t even know the judge. To me personally, I think the whole court’s judicial system in New Jersey is all screwed up. They do all the brothers dirty who come through here. They grab all the brothers who come through here.
What do you mean by that?
It’s big business out here, man, everybody they get their hands on that come through the system, they make sure you feel the ride. They got some type of big business going on out here — as convicts, I think we all like a piece of money or something. Once they get you, it’s hard to get out, and you’re gonna see more time here. But I’m coming back, I’m a freedom fighter.
Do the other inmates feel the same way about the New Jersey prison system?
Absolutely they feel the same way. We all got different charges and different circumstances to our charges, but a lot of people feel… My thing is, not only do they lock you up, but according to the law — and I’m not like a real law professor — but according to the law you’re supposed to be served and convicted according to your culpability and charges. But these guys out here, they real tough out here. This Jersey place is real, real crazy.
What’s the worst thing you’ve seen go on inside the prison?
I seen somebody die in this joint — that was when I first came through, not in this particular prison, but when I was in New York jail. Seen 18, 19-year-old young kids stabbed to death. They were most likely nine out of ten of them affiliated with some gang — I never had to worry about that problem, ’cause that will just get you more time, a longer stay than you need.
After we spoke last time, your mom mentioned that at one point you briefly worked at the Village Voice’s offices. Is that true?
Nah, that was my grandfather. He worked there for like 30 years, as an operator or something. My nine-to-five was working for my pops for like two days. And I worked at the World Trade Center when I was young, like 18-years-old, back before it blew up.
What did you do at the World Trade Center?
I used to run around the building in my slacks and my little Nautica shirts running errands for the building, filing papers, and stuff like that. It was a smooth job. I got it ’cause I dressed nice. I actually went for a messenger job, but they were like, “You got more class, so we’ll put you in a little office.” It was real nice, the girls was cute! It only lasted like six months and then I was running around the streets.
How much did it pay?
Shoot, back then probably like $200 a week, wasn’t no money. I was a little mean-green-spending-machine too — I ran through that, bought a couple of shirts, a little weed, paid my $40 rent ’cause I was staying with a friend. I couldn’t work no nine-to-five.
Can you remember where you were when you found out the World Trade Center had been attacked?
I was locked up in a little drug facility they had switched me over to ’cause i needed a six-month program, so I was working the kitchen and my man ran up like, “Yo, they just blew up New York.” We was in New York, but way upstate, like 10 hours, beyond Watertown, in farm land. I said, “Man, this world is crazy.” That was unthinkable right there; a lot of people died in that. My first thought was I was working there a couple of years ago, so imagine if I still worked there, got a promotion or something and was still there? It was close to home. I started worrying about family — I think I spoke to my mom — and somebody in my family said they wasn’t too far from downtown when it happened. I thought hopefully next they don’t try to blow up like somewhere where there’s masses of people like Madison Square Garden or a stadium or something like that. It was close to home. I was just praying that no immediate family was down that way of the city at the time. A terrible tragedy.
Finally, is there any message you’d like to give to people reading this interview?
Just tell ’em, man, that I just want them to be all they can be. Just try hard, just be good to people, have a good heart. Karma be good. I guess this happened to me for reasons why I don’t know, but things may pass. I have a good heart, man. Be good to people. Life will work itself out. It will be alright.