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 In front of the camera, he appears more withdrawn, but in the company of his friends, his personality fills the room.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.