While Interscope, 50 Cent, and Wiz Khalifa waited for him in the desert, the real secret of Chief Keef's story was playing out back in Chicago.
This feature is a part of Complex's "Finally Rich" Week.
Written by David Drake (@SoManyShrimp)
Early afternoon, November 15, 2012; Las Vegas, Nevada.
Inside Joe’s Crab Shack at the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace, a team from Interscope Records is awaiting the early-afternoon arrival of 17-year-old Chief Keef in Las Vegas. They have just discovered that Keef missed his flight and won’t be arriving until around 3 p.m. They seem unsurprised.
Chicago rapper Chief Keef—born Keith Cozart—is the most talked-about new talent of 2012, and one of the most hated new rappers in recent memory. While some rap critics consider him a hands-down pick for rookie of the year, others insist he can’t rap, or worse, that he's a harmful influence on the culture. Still, his sudden rise from obscurity to superstardom has had a fairytale-like arc. Keef is heading to Las Vegas to film the video for “Hate Being Sober” from his major label debut, Finally Rich; the song, produced by Keef’s go-to Chicago heatmaker Young Chop, has the potential to be a major smash, even without its guest spots from established superstars 50 Cent and Wiz Khalifa. The cost of the shoot is reportedly, at minimum, $30,000. The production stands in stark contrast to the teenage star’s low-budget videos, many of which were shot in his grandmother’s Washington Park apartment. The plan is for today’s shoot to take place in the Nevada desert, about an hour outside of Vegas. 50 Cent has taken a personal interest in the production, hand-picking the video crew. All Keef has to do is show up.
Just under one year earlier, on November 24, 2011, Chief Keef performed his first-ever concert, a surprise appearance in a south suburb of Chicago called Markham, Illinois. The venue was Adrianna’s, a hot spot for both local and touring artists over the past two years. Keef performed four songs from his solo mixtape Bang, including his first viral smash of the same name. His main producer at the time, a Japanese immigrant named DJ Kenn, captured the frenetic show on video. Watching the clip, it was clear that Keef had already become a local superstar to a large subsection of teenagers on Chicago’s South Side. Adrianna’s that night was divided into two different sections by age; during Keef’s performance, one concertgoer estimated that more than 800 kids in the under-21 section were shouting Keef’s lyrics back at him.
Two days later, on November 26, Keef performed his second concert. Initially scheduled for The Harambee House, the show was shut down by police, who were reportedly concerned about Keef’s gang affiliations. (The show was moved at the last minute to Cafe Peninsula in Riverdale, Illinois.) His lyrics are full of references and shout-outs to specific sets, cliques and blocks. For many Chicago teens, where you’re from and who you represent is of great significance, particularly in certain South Side neighborhoods. On November 28, videographer D.Gainz published “Aimed At You,” his second collaboration with Chief Keef on his YouTube channel. He described the shoot to Complex earlier this year: “It wasn’t anybody out there when we pulled up [in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood]. It was just me, him, and his manager Dro. I just remember turning around and hella people came out there all of a sudden, trying to get in the video.” The people he speaks of were mostly school-age kids. “I was seeing the little kids singing and knew the words to the song. They brought a gun, I was like, What the hell? It was crazy to me, and it was like, I wanted people to see what I was seeing.”
50 Cent has taken a personal interest in the production, hand-picking the video crew. All Keef has to do is show up.
A week later, on December 4, Chicago police responded to a report of gunshots in the Washington Park neighborhood. Reportedly, a suspect had pointed a gun at one of the officers. Although no one was hurt, Keef was arrested, and false rumors began swirling on Twitter that he had been involved in a shootout with police. He was charged with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. He read about himself from juvenile detention. “You can’t get on the Internet, they block a lot of shit, but somehow I got a little Mac,” he recalled later. He wanted to show his people the performance at Adrianna’s, but it wasn’t easy. “I was maxin’ shit, I got a Mac laptop. Somehow this one let me get on—normally, you type in Google, you can’t get on Google, Bing, Yahoo!, shit!.... I checked on Facebook it didn’t work, I checked on YouTube, it didn’t work, but it worked on Google and it worked on Twitter. I get on Twitter. I typed in “Chief Keef performs at Adrianna’s”—somehow that article [on Keef’s arrest] came up.”
At the top of 2012, Chief Keef, a 16-year-old high school dropout, was sentenced to 30 days’ house arrest, followed by 30 days of home confinement. In the meantime, his star continued to rise amongst local teens. “Bang” was already the most popular video on D.Gainz’ YouTube channel, and “Aimed At You” was buzzing as well. On January 2, a video of one of his enthusiastic young fans rapping along to “Aimed at You” hit Worldstar Hip Hop. Suddenly, an artist who had been a secret amongst Chicago teenagers was thrown onto a wider stage. Collaborations followed, as Lil B and Soulja Boy reached out to the rapper. Making good use of his house arrest, Keef met demand by completing his Back from the Dead mixtape, which was released on March 12.
Dominoes began to fall. Kanye West remixed his biggest song to that point, the catchy, aggressive “I Don’t Like,” pushing him further into the spotlight. (Producer Young Chop didn’t like the remix, which features Ye, Pusha T, Jadakiss, and Big Sean, and said he felt disrespected that West changed the beat without speaking to him first.) Meanwhile T.I. was calling Keef “the voice of the youth.” On June 17, it was revealed that Keef had signed to Interscope Records as part of a multi-million-dollar label deal that included film rights and Beats By Keef headphones. His buzz grew louder throughout the year, with “Hate Being Sober”—an over-the-top party anthem featuring one of 50 Cent’s strongest verses in recent memory—promising to be Keef’s big potential crossover moment.
Which brings us back to the video shoot in Vegas. Keef still has not arrived, but he has become a dominant conversational flashpoint. Talking about Keef involves pushing forward tidbits of knowledge like puzzle pieces, as if with enough data, we could possibly comprehend the Keef phenomenon. One Interscope rep reveals that soon after this writer’s Gawker article was published on Keef on March 12, there was a major-label bidding war for the 16-year-old star.
Part of the fascination stems from his mysterious relationship to violence and street culture as well as the epidemic of crime now gripping Chicago. Homicides in the nation’s third-largest city are up 38 percent in 2012, when it was already twice as violent as Los Angeles and three times as deadly as New York. Somehow, Keef has become a poster boy or a scapegoat for all this violence, as if a 17-year-old kid held all the answers. As if stopping his rise from the streets to a successful career would stem the tide of bloodshed.
Oddly enough, one Chicagoan has managed to make it to his Vegas gig; former Bears legend Dick Butkus is signing autographs on the Forum’s first floor. The spectacle of the Forum, like much of Vegas, has a perverse beauty, considering it is more or less a glorified shopping mall, with stores for virtually every designer brand represented. Vegas might be a timeworn metaphor for America, and it’s already a notorious locale in hip-hop. But the garish proximity between the glamorous decadence and the hopeless desperation feels particularly apropos.
By 3 p.m., word comes down that Keef has missed his flight again, and won’t be arriving until around 6 p.m. The camera crew, 50 Cent, and Wiz Khalifa have been waiting on his arrival for hours. The shoot in the desert is scrapped, and if any production will happen tonight, it will take place in the evening, at a location not far from the gleaming Vegas strip, as soon as Keef arrives.