Drugs, guns and gangs: How rapper Chief Keef represents bloody Chicago culture
by Taleah Griffin
In the span of two weeks, Chicago-based rapper Chief Keef has been demonized by a variety of media publications. They have attacked the content in his music, his negative image and even his young mother (she’s 32) for being what some have called an irresponsible parent for condoning her son’s erratic behavior.
What’s missing from the discussion that scrutinizes his every tweet is what circumstances birthed him and how he was able to massively capitalize on a murder culture while being on house arrest in America’s murder capital.
Last week Chicago police arrested 300 people and recovered 100 weapons in a 3-day gang and drug raid and March, May and August all recorded more than 50 homicides; 2012 saw homicide victims in the city outnumber troops killed in Afghanistan. It is no secret that the violence in Chicago has been linked to gang activity. Last year the most frequent murder offenders were 17 and 18 years old.
Annual Chicago police statistics show a majority of both homicide victims and offenders are young black men with criminal records… A deeper review of the numbers shows males ages 15 to 35 made up nearly three-quarters of African-American homicide victims… In communities where the cycle of violent crime — disputes, violence and retaliation — has become the norm, young people who have seen too much death develop hardened attitudes about violence startlingly early.
Over the past few years, Chief Keef’s Englewood neighborhood has experienced almost 150 deaths. Being a 16-year-old kid on house arrest in this deadly community, creating songs like “Bang” while pantomiming firing a gun and reciting lyrics such as “choppas get let off, they don’t want no war, throwing clips from the 4-5 gotta go back to the store,” he makes it easy to imagine that the people who are sparking the violence in the city look similar to him and have a similar background. Lupe Fiasco touched on this last week when he was interviewed about Chicago artist by a Baltimore radio station. Fiasco stated:
Chief Keef scares me. Not him, specifically but just the culture that he represents, specifically in Chicago…When you drive through Chicago, the hoodlums, I don’t want to call Chief Keef a hoodlum, but the hoodlums, the gangstas and the ones you see killing each other, the murder rate in Chicago is sky-rocketing, when you see who’s doing it and perpetrating it, they all look like Chief Keef. He looks just like Chicago…he could be any kid on the street…To hear the things that he rap about specifically comparing it to you open up the news papers and there is 22 shootings this weekend, it scares me.
After hearing Lupe’s comments, Keef took to Twitter and wrote:
Lupe Fiasco a h*e a$$ ni**a and when I see him I’m a smack him like da lil b*tch he is #300.
Violence is what he knows and violence is what he is advocating, and he makes no apologies for it. Lupe responded to Keef via Twitter with a touching declaration to make peace and ended his portion of the conversation by unveiling that his album Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1, to be released September 25 via Atlantic, will probably be his last. Lupe wrote:
But my heart is broken and i see no comfort further along this path only more pain. I cannot participate any longer in this … My first true love was literature so i will return to that … lupe fiasco ends here.
Violence in Chicago is not a new occurrence and neither is the imagery of violence portrayed in hip-hop. Chief Keef is not the originator of gangsta rap nor is he the first gang member to be signed to a major record label. Jimmy Iovine has proven before that he has a soft spot in his heart (or room in his bank account) for trash-talking-gang-representing-attention-grabbing rappers like Snoop Dogg was in the early 90’s. What is notable about Keef’s rise to the top is that he emerged from Chicago at a time when the nation is zoomed in to Chicago violence. He’s emerged as the bad guy, the face of Chicago violence and the voice of a thugged-out culture.
How was he able to stand on such a pedestal? If he is really all that the critics say he is, then why has he achieved so much success and why did he get a record deal? The answer is a simple one: YouTube. His original fan base is made up of young people primarily under the age of 18. While some of them don’t have laptops and computers at home, most of them have smartphones. With the ability to access his life from one destination and a mobile device, YouTube has been the most frequented destination for teens looking to find out whatever they want to know about the Chicago rapper, no blog needed, not even a search engine.
However, Chief Keef wasn’t an unknown before he started uploading his videos to Youtube; an alleged known member of the 300 Black Disciple gang, hinted at by his use of the hashtag #300 in his tweets and his popular song “3Hunnaz,” his name rang bells, so to speak, among Chicago youth. With the ‘hood behind him and the suggestion from producer DJ Kenn to “stop saying so much” in his raps, he focused on simplifying his lyrics and was able to connect with his audience and create such a stir in hip-hop that labels were flying to Chicago to court him at his grandmother’s house (he was on house arrest at the time) and even woo his close friends with deals first as a means get his attention.
It’s not a mistake that three of his closest friends and collaborators all signed deals will various labels before he signed with Interscope. Lil Durk and Lil Reese made the announcement that they both signed solo deals with Def Jam in April, and Young Chop announced his signing with Warner Brothers in April also, but Chief Keef did not announce his deal with Interscope until June. Label executives wanted him so bad that they were willing to put his team on to prove their loyalty, and despite his decision to sign with neither Def Jam nor Warner Brothers both labels will reap the benefits of capitalizing on the gang banging because “wild shit sells.”
Through his deal with Interscope he was able to solidify a movie deal, a Beats by Chief Keef line of headphones, and his own GBE (Glory Boyz Entertainment) imprint, making him the youngest major label head in history.
True, his music speaks to the culture he was derived from, but it also shows teens who are still facing similar situations of gangs, drugs and poverty that they too can reap the benefits of musical success that comes with glorying murder and violence.
In Chicago, it is hardly about Keef’s music, but about a Black Disciple being so visible in today’s musical culture and levitating above the streets, seemingly above his enemies. Call it envy or vested interest, but if Keef is a member of the Black Disciples, then they now have an imprint with a major label and nationwide notoriety using the outlet of hip hop. It’s not surprising that this would ruffle some feathers in the Chicago streets.
A vocal Joseph “JoJo” Coleman, the young man that was murdered Wednesday after an altercation with Lil Reese, was barely a rapper and probably did not consider his beef with GBE a rap beef. It was personal; by creating the song “300hunna,” he inadvertently represented the 300 Black Disciple gang and that was a diss to JoJo’s set, so he released “300hunnak” a diss track where he proclaims to be a Black Disciple killer with the lyrics “these ni**as claim 300 but we BDK”.
The beef quickly took to the streets when JoJo posted on YouTube a video of him and a friend harassing Lil Reese while they drove past in a car. The altercation would eventually be taken to Twitter and hours later JoJo was shot dead while riding his bike. After learning of the murder, Chief Keef responded on Twitter by posting the message “It’s sad cuz dat ni**a JoJo wanted to be jus like us #LMAO”–LMAO stands for “laughing my ass off.” While Lil Reese had a much more direct response when he tweeted “Damn I just wke up 2da jojo sh*t f**k Em….”
Maybe over time (and with some guidance) Chief Keef will evolve into a pop culture icon — after all, Snoop did. He is now far removed from the 21-year-old gang banger that was charged with murder in 1993 while signed to Interscope and Death Row Records. Keef will not be seventeen forever and perhaps one day he will be able to stand against the very machine that made him.