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.”
He says he started recording in “2008 or 2007”—which would have made him eleven or twelve years old. One of his producers, DJ Kenn, has been working with him since that time. Kenn, who was raised in the Yamagata Prefecture of Japan, came to the United States at the age of 20 and moved to Chicago from New York within a year of his arrival.
I write about what's going on right now, you feel me?" says Keef. "I write about what's going on right now, what we just did, what just happened, that's what I write about. I don't be trying so hard.
He was walking through Keef's neighborhood when he was spotted by Keef’s Uncle, also named Keith. The elder Keith found Kenn a place to stay. Keef and his friend Fredo Santana began working with Kenn around that time.
Videotaped interviews don't give a good idea of what Keef is like in person; he's completely self-possessed and confident with a quick wit and obvious charisma. In front of the camera, he appears more withdrawn, but in the company of his friends, his personality fills the room.
Although his music has been compared to Waka Flocka’s, as a rapper, his style is distinctly his own. “See, motherfuckers think I can't do metaphors and punchlines. They...” he says, gesturing out the window at his neighborhood, “don't want to see me do that. I don't 'think,' I don't sit down and 'think,' I write about what's going on right now, you feel me? I write about what's going on right now, what we just did, what just happened, that's what I write about. I don't be trying so hard. I used to [do that], ask him...” he says, gesturing at DJ Kenn. “He told me to stop! Kenn was the reason. He said, 'stop saying so much.'”
It wasn't until Keef and Kenn linked up with the videographer Duan Gaines, known as DGainz, for their first major video (“Bang”) that it became apparent what Keef's future might entail. DGainz has spent the past two years shooting music videos for a bulk of the city of Chicago's rappers.
The untrained 23-year-old is at the forefront of bringing the city's performers online for the first time. Keef found DGainz the way most Chicago artists had; through Facebook. They met at DJ Kenn's studio, and shot the “Bang” video in thirty minutes. “I just wanted to give it the look that it sounded like,” DGainz said when asked about the creative process. “It had a grimy sound to it.”
Early on, people accused DGainz of paying to have his view counts boosted on YouTube. But it quickly became evident that this was impossible, or at best a red herring. Talk to any South Side high school teacher, or view concert footage on YouTube, and it quickly becomes evident that many of the artists DGainz works with had developed a serious word-of-mouth success.
Keef has captured the nation's attention, but he's not the only artist from this scene. Those who like clever lyrics might be drawn to King Louie, who is Keef's favorite Chicago rapper outside his close circle of friends. Rappers Lil Reese, Lil Durk, SD and Fredo Santana joined DJ Kenn to make up the “Glory Boys Entertainment,” or GBE, clique. And artists like Shady, Sasha Gohard and Katie Got Bandz had some YouTube hits that proved women were just as much a part of this scene as men.
With Keef's increased notoriety, there came a backlash. In the comments section at FakeShoreDrive he was accused of everything from denigrating the public image of African-Americans to being ‘slow.’
He's a Chicago artist who's doing his thing, but they didn't think he'd get on because he's too real and straightforward. The stuff he's talking about... I think that's why it's getting so many views, because a lot of people can relate to what he's talking about, even though it's grimy and controversial because of his age.
—Video Director DGainz
DGainz had his own feelings about the issue: “He's a Chicago artist who's doing his thing, but they didn't think he'd get on because he's too real and straightforward. The stuff he's talking about... I think that's why it's getting so many views, because a lot of people can relate to what he's talking about, even though it's grimy and controversial because of his age.”
So far, it’s hard to imagine how a sixteen-year-old will deal with the increased notoriety, even one as comfortable in his own skin as Keith Cozart. As artists from across hip-hop have rushed to collaborate with him, Keef’s gleefully tweeted about working with everyone from Young Jeezy to Fat Trel. It’s an understandable reaction, even if some of the attention feels a bit premature.
At the same time, Keef’s sudden rise is a part of a much bigger movement, a corrective to years of gatekeeper blogs and reinforcement of hip-hop’s hierarchy. The walls began to fall with the rise of Southern hip-hop in the early 2000s, and now that the country’s 3rd largest metropolis is coming online, it’s getting harder to ignore that talent.
Whether Chief Keef can stand up to the scrutiny of all of this attention remains to be seen; in the short time between the release of “Bang” and “I Don’t Like,” he’s shown remarkable growth as a songwriter, and he’s had some genuinely great, memorable lyrics sprinkled throughout his recent output. How he responds to the pressures of fame and Internet cynicism will shape the arc of his career going forward.