Find out how Chief Keef went from being just another kid on the Internet to getting remixed by Kanye West.
Written by David Drake (@somanyshrimp)
It must have come as quite a shock to much of the country when Kanye West made the decision last week to remix Chief Keef's "I Don't Like"—a regional rap hit that had only recently crested one million views on YouTube. For many—particularly those not tuned into Chicago's street rap scene—it's still something of a surprise.
It's easier to understand once one becomes familiar with the song itself, an irrepressibly catchy anthem that took Chicago hip-hop circles by storm not two months ago. But for many, it seemed to come out of nowhere; until the news Kanye had an interest in the rapper broke, he'd seldom been covered by hip-hop blogs without a Chicago focus, and had in fact been decried in a few of them.
In an era where constant hype seems to outrun an artist's talents before they even have a chance to apply themselves, many listeners are already cynically tuned against any artist whose popularity didn't result from the more “organic” route of radio or touring—and this is understandable. But Chief Keef's music has been ringing in Chicago recently for a few reasons, much of which happened very naturally, building upon personal relationships Keef developed as a teenager with his fellow students on Chicago's South Side.
When I was living with my mama, we used to have this karaoke machine,” Keef recalls. “We had little blank tapes, put 'em in there, record, got the little mic, the beat playing, weak-ass beats and sh*t. Cold as hell! Called ourselves Total Domination.”
Chicago is the third-largest city in the country, with a population of nearly three million. Its low profile in hip-hop has a few contributing factors; for years, it was the competition of house music, which remains a vital sound through its various juke and footwork permutations. But the biggest contributor to the scene's invisibility was that much of the music remained only at street level—or, in many cases, high-school level.
And until the advent of YouTube and the amateur videographer, that world was invisible to the outside. The biggest moment for Chicago's street-rap scene was when Bump J locked the city down in the mid-2000s; it took that level of success for the entertainment industry to even pay attention to Chicago's scene. Bump was the inspiration, though, as almost any Chicago rapper will tell you, for the current scene's revival.
Chief Keef was born Keith Cozart in Chicago and grew up in the neighborhood around 64th Street and King Drive. Although neighborhood boundaries in Chicago can be hotly contested, several artists contend that the “East Side” of Chicago is anywhere from State Street to Lake Michigan, which would make Keef an East Sider. His mother still lives in the neighborhood, although he's been staying with his grandmother in the southern end of Washington Park—the bit that dips south and west of Hyde Park—while on house arrest for a weapons charge.
Keef attended Dulles Elementary School and later Banner High School, and everyone in his videos are the kids he grew up with. The first rap music he recalled listening to was G-Unit and Beanie Sigel. He was rapping even before he started recording.
“When I was living with my mama, we used to have this karaoke machine,” he recalls. “We was little as fuck. Little-ass kids, about '05, '04. We used to freestyle. I used to be so cold, even when I was a little shorty, I used to freestyle raw as hell. See now my brain is fucked up from smoking so much loud. But I was raw! We had little blank tapes, put 'em in there, record, got the little mic, the beat playing, weak-ass beats and shit. Cold as hell! Called ourselves Total Domination.”