Rappers’ legacies never really die if they leave the right things behind. Once rappers pass, their mixtapes, albums, and leaked material allow listeners to keep their memories alive. For fans who still blast 2Pac or Biggie wherever they go, it’s the music that allows them to resurrect the fallen legends and relive their glory days all over again.
This year, hip-hop lost A$AP Yams, the Jacka, Chinx, Pumpkinhead, and Sean Price—all pivotal figures in their own right who likely left behind tons of unreleased music. While A$AP Rocky has confirmed he’s picking up where Yams left off and putting out his posthumous album, the more immediate release is Chinx’s debut, Welcome to JFK, out Aug. 14. The team behind the 31-year-old rapper’s first posthumous album has been on an emotional rollercoaster ever since his murder on May 17 in Jamaica, Queens. It has been difficult for Lionel Pickens’ friends, family, and musical collaborators to recover from their loss, but they’ve finally grown comfortable enough to drop the project his fans wanted to hear.
“For the past two months, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing,” says Doug “Biggs” Ellison, Chinx’s manager and executive producer of Welcome to JFK. “I literally went from planning an album, to planning a funeral, and then got right back to finishing up this album. It kind of helped me through the grieving process because I had something to do every day. So between his family, the wife, the kids, and this music, I’ve just been submerged in his presence and doing what he would want me to do to make sure the legacy stays strong and alive.”
Biggs and Chinx were in talks about partnering up as early as 2008 after Chinx served a four-year sentence at Mid-State Correctional Facility in Marcy, N.Y. Seven years ago, Chinx was still trying to get his name out there, recording constantly in Biggs’ studio in Queens and working with the Riot Squad, which consisted of Bynoe, Cau2Gs, and the slain rapper Stack Bundles. Eventually, Chinx met French Montana through Bundles’ friend Max B, and he became a member of the Coke Boys after he clicked with them musically.
Chinx’s steady grind on the mixtape circuit paid off when “I’m a Coke Boy” off his 2012 mixtape Cocaine Riot 2 became a popular single. Once Chinx saw the song bubble out of the underground, he approached Biggs and asked him to officially manage him.
“I’m not the type of person that takes [on] a bunch of artists,” Biggs says. “I really like to get in the trenches and figure out who they are and what they need. I think that was what attracted him, the fact that I was accessible and I understood the business.”
Biggs came on as Chinx’s right hand when he was readying the release of his first retail EP, I’ll Take It From Here, in 2013. The five-track project, released through Riot Squad, NuSense Music Group, and Coke Boys, increased his profile as it showed he could make catchy street records, like “Feelings,” for a larger audience. Chinx also removed the “Drugz” portion of his stage name for a cleaner image. After “Feelings” started to get plays on New York radio stations Hot 97 and Power 105.1, Sony Music Entertainment approached Chinx with a record deal in January 2014, but he opted to stay independent.
“With all the groundwork that we had put in, the most important thing for him was obviously ownership,” Biggs says. “I’m sure you know with all the deals everybody is offering these days, they’re 360 deals. You walk away from the table with little or nothing. We didn’t want to get on the label and be shelved.”
After he turned down the Sony deal, Chinx went right back to work on free mixtapes, releasing his two strongest projects to date: Cocaine Riot 4 and Cocaine Riot 5. These tapes showed his penchant for observational hood tales that pegged him as a rising star among Young Thug, A$AP Ferg, and his mentor, French Montana.
He was just so humble and I wanted to show him [the] right direction ’cause I know this game can suck you dry with the wrong people. —French Montana
“I saw the talent before anything, and then, his vibe was so ahead of time,” says French. “He was just so humble and I wanted to show him [the] right direction ’cause I know this game can suck you dry with the wrong people.”
Towards the end of 2014, Biggs was also in talks with eOne Music. He felt strongly about taking Chinx and his talents to the indie powerhouse after he learned that Gabrielle Peluso, former general manager of Def Jam, was brought on by eOne’s president, Alan Grunblatt. Off the strength of “Feelings," “Couple Niggas,” and “Bodies,” Peluso worked out a deal with Biggs that was finalized in February 2015 for the release of Chinx’s debut, Welcome to JFK.
“Chinx just has that thing where he walks into a room and you know he’s a star,” says Peluso. “He walks into a room [and] says hi to everybody. Shakes their hand. Makes every girl feel like he’s in love with them, makes every guy feel like they could be friends. I did the deal without hearing any new music because it didn’t matter. I knew he knew how to make them.”
eOne commissioned several studio sessions in October through February for the making of JFK with Chinx’s in-house producers who have developed his sound since the start of his Cocaine Riot series. Behind roughly 85 percent of JFK’s production are Four Kings (Young Stokes and Blickie Blaze), Amazin’ Music Group (Lee on the Beats, Bkorn, Austin Powerz, Roc da Producer, Mae N Maejor, Jabarrie, Golden Boy, K-beatz, and Nathan Anthony), and songwriter/singer/rapper MeetSims, who moved from Arkansas to New York so he could work with him one-on-one. Chinx and his team had always been working on JFK in some capacity; probably as early as when he first got the concept tatted on his stomach. But after CR5, they started to set aside records for the project—the album’s intro and the single, “Experimental” and “On Your Body,” respectively.
However, Chinx didn’t have a complete album. Just days after going to the studio to finish up records for JFK, the fatal shooting that ended his life halted his album plans. After his funeral on May 26, everyone involved in Chinx’s career had to come together and re-strategize the release of JFK—and figure out how to do it the way Chinx would’ve wanted.
“Once we got past the funeral, we sat back down and we just readjusted,” Peluso says. “Now that we didn’t have him, people were rushing me. I had outsiders [saying], ‘You have to put the album out now.’ I was like, ‘You guys, I don’t have a finished [album]. It’s not done right this second. It’s almost done, but it’s not fucking done.’ I’m not going to jeopardize the integrity of this project because of pressure.”
With just about every fan and industry insider in hip-hop talking about Chinx’s murder—from Rob and Khloé Kardashian to Meek Mill and Jay Z—it would have been easy to capitalize on the conversation and rush out his debut for high album sales. The biggest hold-up for JFK was securing features before it was time to turn in the album. While songs with Rick Ross, Chris Brown, and Meek Mill never came to fruition, JFK still boasts names such as Ty Dolla $ign, Jeremih, Lil Durk, Nipsey Hussle, and French.
On June 2, “On Your Body” featuring MeetSims was released as the single for JFK. Compared to the street bangers that raised Chinx's profile, this was the first time his fans got to hear the new direction of his music. Produced by Lee on the Beats with additional help from Bkorn, “On Your Body” is a radio-friendly offering that finds the pair spoiling the women they like with riches. The video paints Chinx as a family man and stars his wife, Janelli Pickens, and their children.
“When we came out with ‘On Your Body,’ you can tell the response that we got from it,” MeetSims says. “We knew people weren’t expecting that. But it fits so right for him, so it sounded perfect.”
“We all wanted a radio single for Chinx,” Bkorn adds. “Before the song just had one verse and a hook on it, [and] he was just going to the radio stations and playing that one record and telling them this is going to be the leading single off the album. He already knew the direction the album was going in.”
After the album was up for pre-order on iTunes on July 17, more teasers were made available for fans: “Yay,” “How to Get Rich,” and “Don’t Mind Me.” Each represents the range Chinx was trying to achieve, helping widen his fan base and bringing new ears to his music. It marks years of honing his craft to the level where he no longer would have been boxed in as a street rapper. Like “S.A.B.,” you’ll hear the streets relate to “Yay” and what will inevitably take over the clubs. The piano-laden “How to Get Rich” comes directly from his time on the block, where sharp introspective rhymes about getting your money up are taught through personal experiences. “Don’t Mind Me” is a classic stunt anthem, but done in such a way that only Chinx could pull off.
“You know when a player comes into the League, they still developing,” says Lee on the Beats, “and then they get to that point where you know they can do no bad? It was like at that point because almost everything he did was good. There were no disappointments.”
The general consensus is New York doesn’t have a sound that’s easily identifiable. The era of Dipset and G-Unit seems like ancient history in comparison to the eclectic tastes of the A$AP Mob and Azealia Banks. Chinx wanted to embody the Coke Boys style of hard-hitting beats and simple rhymes with the Riot Squad’s grittiness.
“I remember Chinx telling me a week before he passed that he wanted me to listen to all the classic albums, like Jay’s Reasonable Doubt, Wayne’s Tha Carter III. [Nas’] Illmatic,” Stokes says, who assisted in engineering the project with Blickie Blaze. “He wanted me to listen to all the classic albums by the greatest and come up with the best work possible.”
One of the album’s highlights is “Far Rock,” which features a new verse by Stack Bundles. Chinx wanted listeners to familiarize themselves with Stacks’ contributions to New York hip-hop and pay homage to the Riot Squad. He asked Skane, the founder of Desert Storm Records, and DJ Clue to give him permission to look through the vaults of their former artist. Once he found some verses of Stacks’ he liked, he sent them to Biggs to help put together a track that organically matched Stacks from the past with Chinx of 2015.
Blickie Blaze was the producer behind the record, where he added excerpts of Chinx’s uncle Norman Seabrook’s speech at his funeral, Stack’s final interview with Yum Yum the Photographer at Quad Studios, and a Chinx interview with Thisis50’s Jack Thriller. He originally had Jay Z’s speech honoring Chinx during his Tidal B-Sides concert in May to complete the record, but was removed due to clearance issues.
Blaze recalls the night before Chinx’s death that they set up a studio session with Stokes for Chinx to hear the final product. While Chinx was able to hear all the songs he recorded for his album, the eerie part was he never got to hear this one. “We was both actually sitting here in the studio, waiting for Chinx to get here,” Blaze says. “But nobody knew where he went. He never came home.” The significance of “Far Rock” is a lot greater now: two of the neighborhood’s finest forever immortalized through a song.
The album’s closer, “Die Young,” sets the tone as the Coke Boys’ statement for their fallen comrade. After MeetSims laid down a hook for the song, it was completed during Chinx’s last studio session, and verses by French and his brother Zack were added later. Through the creators who heard the song that evening, Chinx’s verse—and the line “I pray I be OK when I grow up a little bigger/If I don’t, tell my babies daddy was a real nigga”—almost prophesied what would inevitably be his untimely death. “I was at a lost for words,” says Stokes after he recorded his part. “I didn’t know what to say to him after that. He didn’t want to talk after that. It was done.”
Blaze echoed something similar: “It was just crazy because when all this stuff happened, everyone was asking questions that couldn’t be answered. He’s not here anymore. When that record played for everybody, [they were like], ‘Oh, that’s the answer to every question.’”
Chinx’s absence still resonates with the Coke Boys, and his contributions to the crew are still missed. The Coke Boys want to carry out his legacy by starting a charity for him in his name. “He was the backbone,” Zack says. “That’s what he really was. Me and him would keep everything together. He would always say, ‘What you kill, you eat. So you gotta get out here and get to it.’ I’ve learned a lot from my brother in different kinds of ways. He was everything.’
Welcome to JFK won’t be Chinx’s final album. Currently, there are talks of releasing a second album on his birthday (Dec. 4) that’ll possibly be led by a single produced by Harry Fraud. Chinx’s producers have approximately 20 or so unreleased records that could be pieced together for a third project. MeetSims and Chinx even have their own set of songs that could be packaged as CR 6 (Commemorative Riot). French Montana, who is working on Mac & Cheese: The Album, confirms Chinx will be on his sophomore effort and promises additional collaborations with him and Zack on the way. There’s a lot of Chinx’s music tucked away. The question is whether his music will be timeless enough to hold the attention of future rap fans.
“His legacy will always live through me,” French says. “He was the next up. I wish he could have enjoyed it. We got a lot in store for Chinx’s legacy—music is just the beginning, so whenever you see me, you see Chinx. It’s just sad how the streets don’t want you to win, even when you’re a humble dude out here pointing people in the right direction. I got Chinx for life. He will forever be the No. 1 Coke Boy.”
Eric Diep is a writer living in New York. Follow him @E_Diep.