The section of Trenton that lies in the shadow of New Jersey State Prison looks like the area around a poisoned tree where nothing grows. Stained mattresses lie in front of shuttered storefronts; broken glass from windows and bottles emits a dull luster across the street from a boarded-up bank; and large Budweiser banners hang outside bars that meet alleys full of rowhouses.
More than 1,850 inmates call the massive prison their home, but there’s probably only one that has been on MTV and recorded with some of New York City’s biggest names in 21st-century hip-hop. A quick Google search for this inmate will reveal stories of rap beef, different interpretations of the crime that put him in prison, and a huge trove of videos and photographs, all of which find him in the same uniform, like a superhero from the streets: a N.Y. fitted cap over braids, tight white T-shirt, designer belt barely holding up a pair of jeans, eyes masked by wraparound shades.
An empty plastic chair sits under the harsh fluorescent lights, waiting for hip-hop’s unsung hero: Charly Wingate, 35 years old, a son of Harlem, a father of four. Inmate 000904278D.
Cloaked in the lifestyle’s trappings—clouds of smoke, bottles of brown liquor, doe-eyed women—he appears in various settings: smoking a blunt on a stoop in Harlem; in a dimly lit studio, far from sobriety, with disparaging words for a former colleague; at the center of a frenzied crowd in a packed club; and always flaunting huge wads of cash, the material that was a blessing and a curse, the reason for his current incarceration.
In this context, he is known as Max B, or “Biggavelli,” a play on the nicknames of three rap legends: “Biggie” (Smalls), "Jigga" (Jay-Z), and “Makaveli” (Tupac). But in the current reality, his white tees and designer jeans have been replaced by the prison system’s khaki uniforms for the incarcerated. He won't be eligible for parole until November 9, 2042.
Even the Public Information officer from New Jersey’s Department of Corrections knows there’s something about this inmate: in a grey, windowless visiting room early one morning in May, he mentions that there have been numerous requests from the press for an interview, but this is the only one that has been granted.
An hour has been allotted, after a lengthy period of no private visits at all. There’s a cage on one side of the room, which prison officials initially offered to put the inmate behind. Instead, an empty plastic chair sits under the harsh fluorescent lights, waiting for hip-hop’s unsung hero: Charly Wingate, 35 years old, a son of Harlem, a father of four. Inmate 000904278D.
“I'm innocent/Wasn’t even there” — “Lord Is Tryna Tell You Something,” Coke Wave 2, 2009
If you’ve paid attention to any contemporary hip-hop recently, you’ve probably heard the phrase “Free Max B.” It’s been a consistent meme in the genre for at least five years, with everyone from Curren$y to Drake adding their take on it—even Jay-Z, who was soundly dismissed by Cam’ron in 2006 on “You Gotta Love It” (with a hook provided by Wingate), gave a nod on last year’s “3 Kings” with Rick Ross and Dr. Dre. On the cover of February’s XXL, French Montana proudly displayed his “Free Max B” T-shirt next to A$AP Rocky. All this for an artist whose output—more than 20 mixtapes, one full-length on a small independent label and a substantial number of hooks and verses with New York City’s Dipset/ByrdGang crews—was recorded in a relatively short period of time, from 2006 to 2008, sandwiched between jail terms.
After serving eight years for robbery starting at the age of 17, Charly Wingate was released in 2005, and via Cam’ron, a childhood friend, hooked up with the Harlem rapper Jim Jones and his ByrdGang crew. A series of hits (“Baby Girl,” “Confront Ya Babe,” “So Harlem”) followed, many of which had hooks and melodies that Wingate contributed, but disputes arose over compensation. Wingate’s contract with Jones limited his ability to earn what he felt was adequate, which resulted in frustration, and a nasty public beef ensued. (Jim Jones could not be reached for comment for this article.) It was during this period that “the incident” happened.
According to the State of New Jersey’s court report, on the evening of September 21, 2006, Wingate and his stepbrother, Kelvin Leerdam, were at a basketball court in Harlem with some friends. Gina Conway, a woman Wingate had been involved with on and off, arrived after spending the day with Allan Plowden, whom the court describes as involved in “mortgage, real estate and credit card fraud.” He and his partner, David Taylor, were known for “driving expensive cars around New York City,” and Plowden “often carried a Louis Vuitton bag containing cash, sometimes as much as $40,000.”
I think they made an example of him because he’s Max B,” says Next, head of the Amalgam Digital label. "You look at the guy and perhaps you’re going to make judgements of the guy because of the art form.
Plowden had noticed Conway in the Bronx two days earlier, and, the court report says, after an unsuccessful attempt to “seduce” her, he made another play on September 21 by taking her shopping in New Jersey and, later, to a Holiday Inn in Fort Lee. At the hotel, he showed her the cash in his Louis Vuitton bag, which Conway estimated to be at “approximately $50,000.” After giving her a key card to his room, he drove her back to Manhattan, then met up with Taylor — they took two women to a club and then returned to the hotel.
After Plowden dropped her off, Conway took a cab to the basketball court to meet Wingate. She had called Wingate during her time that day with Plowden “to make him jealous,” and when she described Plowden’s money, Wingate reportedly made a plan. According to Conway, who was the only defendant to testify at the trial (on behalf of the State of New Jersey), Wingate directed Leerdam and Conway to go to Plowden’s hotel and steal his money. He called a cab driver, Mouhamadou Mbengue, to take Leerdam and Conway to Fort Lee. According to Conway’s testimony, Wingate pulled into a gas station when they stopped and told her he would “love her forever” if she “pulled it off.” He did not follow them to the hotel.
Once they found Plowden’s car, Conway and Leerdam went to Plowden’s room. Leerdam pulled out a gun, gloves and a roll of duct tape. Conway says she had not realized force was “part of the plan,” according to her statement, and when she was instructed to knock on the door, one of the women, Giselle Nieves, answered. Conway and Leerdam forced their way into the room, duct-taped Nieves’s hands, feet and mouth, and woke Plowden up at gunpoint. After being threatened, Plowden told them that the rest of the money (he had hidden $1000 under his mattress and put the rest under the lining of the room’s trash can) was in Taylor’s room.
With a gun to his head, Plowden called Taylor and asked him to come to his room. When Taylor arrived, Conway opened the door and Leerdam aimed the gun at Taylor, who tried to grab it. The gun was discharged and Taylor was killed. Conway and Leerdam took what they could from Plowden’s room and left; Plowden managed to free himself and chase them, but Leerdam pointed the gun at him and he backed down. Conway and Leerdam got back in the waiting cab and left.
Wingate was not present for any of the events at the hotel. He did not testify at his own trial, at which Conway was a witness for the state and Wingate and Leerdam were charged together. The legal definition of a conspiracy means that Wingate’s absence from the scene of the crime did not exclude him from any of the charges; his involvement in any discussion of the crime before it took place qualified him for separate counts of murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, robbery and possession of a firearm for unlawful purposes. An appeal last August was denied.
“I think they made an example of him because he’s Max B… you look at the guy and perhaps you’re going to make judgements of the guy because of the art form,” says Next, head of the Amalgam Digital label that signed Max B and released Vigilante Season in 2011. “He obviously was connected to [the crime]… but when you know Max, I don’t think Max sat down and created this elaborate plan to go and get money and strategically put it all together.”
During the period between the arrest for these charges and the trial, Wingate managed to put together funds for his $1.5 million bail partially by selling some of his publishing rights to Jim Jones, a short-term fix that now ultimately prevents him from earning much of anything from the Max B catalog. And so goes the great irony of Wingate’s career: for all the images of him flaunting wads of hundred-dollar bills, he and his family find themselves in a difficult financial period now, since all of his mixtapes are available for free online.
He’s still not completely out of the public sphere, though. His slang term "wavy" is still widely used. And Wingate’s voice, recorded over the phone from prison, utters the first words on Excuse My French, the latest French Montana album.
“His words to me [during the trial] was, ‘French, I can’t wait til I get this thing off my back. Once I get this off my back, we gonna make it to the top,’” says Montana, who met Wingate through mutual friends and later sought him out to collaborate musically. “When my album dropped, I made sure it was on his birthday, made sure he was on the first track. Because we both had the same kind of dream.”