Chief Keef: Hail To The Chief (2012 Online Cover Story)

Chief Keef: Hail To The Chief (2012 Online Cover Story)Illustration by Simon Jones and Liz Barclay

May 15, 2012; Dro City, Chicago

While incarcerated Chicago superstar and former Kanye collaborator Bump J is the godfather of millennial Chicago gangster rap, the story of drill music begins with a rapper named Pac Man. A gruff, dreadlocked street star who was killed in 2010, Pac Man (also known as Larro) had collaborated with the L.E.P. Bogus Boys, released several mixtapes, and was one of the city’s buzzing street artists. Keef may be the national face of Chicago’s drill scene, but up until late last year, he was only a peripheral figure from nearby 64th and King Drive. Pac Man was from Dro City, and Dro City is where drill music began.

 

Keef may be the national face of Chicago’s drill scene, but up until late last year, he was only a peripheral figure from nearby 64th and King Drive. Pac Man was from Dro City, and Dro City is where drill music began.

 

Running along Woodlawn between 63rd and 67th Streets. Dro City was named for resident Samuel Spicer, known as Sajo, or Dro for short. He was killed in 2007; after which, Dro City became known for more than just music (“Based on the things that happened with him, our name was put in a lot of people’s mouths, good or bad. That’s the only way I can put it in an interview,” says Big Homie Doe, a neighborhood resident whose 2009 hit ("Whaddup") made him one of the best-known rap artists at that time.) The next year, King Louie’s debut, Boss Shit, introduced a new Dro City star, but Pac Man was the focal point of the movement. Widely credited with coining the term ‘drill,’ Pac Man had a raggedly charismatic voice that animated tracks like My Dreads” and “Dro Style.” The latter song, and its accompanying dance (later popularized by King Louie, then Lil Mouse as “the money dance”) perfectly conveyed the unique culture of a community that developed in isolation, with limited exposure to the wider world.

Big Homie Doe explained the origins of the drill movement while standing in a Dro City alley one unusually hot May afternoon. Approaching the back door of an apartment, Doe pointed to a place where pieces of the brick had been gouged out by bullets during an attempt on Pac Man’s life several years before. Inside the apartment, which had a steady influx of guests wandering in and out, was a jack-of-all-trades named Joel Faulkner. Older than the average Dro City resident, Joel has long watched the scene develop, and was the videographer who shot Pac Man’s video for “Dro Style.”

If the atmosphere outside felt tense, inside Joel, Doe, and rapper Boss Woo enthusiastically shared their stories, talking proudly about the way their culture had permeated the city—first through the mixtape trade, and more recently via YouTube. Pac Man had been saying “drill” three years ago, but the rest of the city had just caught on in the past twelve months. The word drill, as they explained, could mean shooting, but it could apply to other aspects of life as well. “Everybody gets it twisted—drill ain’t just shootin’ and killin’,” explained Boss Woo. “You could be drillin’ having a ball at a party. If you havin’ a good time, you’re drillin'.”

The Dro City rappers of Doe’s generation are several years removed from Keef’s, but they’re sympathetic to how he’s been misunderstood. Doe observes that many times, outsiders don’t understand the references he’s making because they are so neighborhood-specific. Certain lyrics in Keef’s “3hunna” about Tooka Gang are disrespectful, and hearing someone shouting them in the wrong club could be dangerous. The Tooka Gang was named after one of their own who had been killed. The awkward cultural clashes and misconceptions continue on Keef’s major label debut. On “Diamonds,” a musical highlight from the record, Keef talks about riding on the Brick Squad GDs, the same gang that murdered rapper Jojo claimed. Whether the label fully understands the lyrics or not, for a major label to be marketing music about real-life neighborhood turf wars to an international audience captures one of the uncomfortable realities of gangster rap. The ironies are compounded: For months, Keef’s Twitter page has been styled like the hyper-violent and perennially controversial Grand Theft Auto video game cover art; next year, “Love Sosa” will be included in the game soundtrack.

But where does one draw the line of responsibility? “I don’t discriminate, but I have limits,” said D.Gainz, who remains cautious about how guns are used in his videos, but has accepted his role with an artist often accused of glorifying violence. “I know what my motives were,” he says. “I seen Keef’s potential.”

Finally Rich lives up to that potential. Musically, it’s a unique, accomplished album. Chief Keef’s music inspires a lot of talk about its unrelentingly grimness, its bleak, even nihilistic outlook. But on an emotional level, Keef’s music is hardly bleak at all—primarily, it’s party music. Still, much of what he says is steeped in the language of violence because his context is violent, something most of his newer listeners are privileged to ignore. But “I Don’t Like,” contrary to its titular message, is joyous. As he vents, there’s the feeling of a dam breaking open, of therapeutic release. “Kaykay,” named for his daughter, has a particularly strong emotive power because of Keef’s own story, and the heart-tugging pull of his rags-to-riches origins. The reason the track is affecting is because his story resonates. It’s much like the contradiction inherent in “drill”—drill means shootings, or it means partying. There’s no separation between them, because shootings have become as much a part of life as going to parties.

That doesn’t make it easy to stomach. The dreamy “Citgo,” a bonus track, includes the lyric “my boys shoot up the playground.” Considering Chicago’s backdrop of violence—and the recent atrocity in a Connecticut elementary school—this imagery is flat-out nauseating.

Chief Keef’s newsworthiness comes, in part, because of his how music is positioned across all kinds of faultlines: cultural clashes, racial segregation, economic divides between haves and have nots. But perhaps the most potent catalyst for controversy is his age. His youthfulness grants him an innocence even as it forces society to recognize its own complicity. If he were an adult, he could be dismissed as a “thug” and victimizer. If he were completely innocent, his actions could be waved off as those of a child, and someone might try to save him. Instead, he sits right at the intersection of victim and self-made aggressor.

It’s not just the shocking juxtaposition of a teenager reveling in conspicuous drug use and handguns. That’s nothing new in hip-hop. Mobb Deep’s The Infamous explored those exact themes back in 1995. With Keef there are onion-layer levels of generational conflict, jagged tears between old and new hip-hop heads, within generations of gangster rap, and within Chicago’s streets.

Just after Keef was born—in the late 1990s and early 2000s—the Chicago housing authority demolished much of what had been the country’s largest network of public housing. The destruction of the housing projects upended communities and sent the poor teeming into the South Side suburbs. It also scattered gang members across the city and law enforcement wasted no time stepping in. RICO cases were brought against entire blocks. Gang leadership was decimated, as elders were scooped into the penal system. Gangs became fractured; the sense, particularly among the older generation, was that gang violence has become an uncontrollable chaotic force, driven by intoxicated teenagers devoid of remorse or empathy. Many observers considered them monsters or savages. To many older Chicagoans who recall a more authoritarian gang era, Keef represents all the worst traits of this widened generation gap. In an interview with a Baltimore radio station earlier this year, Lupe Fiasco claimed that Keef “scared” him, and observed that Chicago’s killers looked like Keef. What he neglected to mention was that Chicago’s victims, by and large, look like Keef too.

In the wake of the Connecticut school shooting, President Obama addressed gun violence directly, making it clear that it would be wrong to write off any kids, no matter where they live: “Whether it is an elementary school in Newtown or a shopping mall in Oregon or a temple in Wisconsin or a movie theater in Aurora or a street corner in Chicago, these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children.”

Mamie Till-Mobely Park, not far from Joel’s, in the very center of Dro City, is where the locally-famous 64th Street cipher video—featuring Boss Woo, Fatzmack and deceased rappers Pac Man and Sno Boy, amongst others—was filmed. It is noticeable in the background of the video, but is especially striking in person, as children run around while their mothers watch from the sidelines: at the heart of Dro City is a playground.

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