Bottom Feeders Are Preying on Street Rap's Dominance

Today’s artists are encouraged to present themselves as close to the street as possible. But the criminal justice system is preying on this dynamic.


Image via YouTube/Gunna & Young Thug


Street rap is becoming bigger and more saturated than ever. Today’s artists are encouraged to present themselves as close to the street as possible in their lyrics, videos, and on social media, but unfortunately, their efforts to placate bloodthirsty consumers are falling right into the cop’s playbook. Rap has long been a way for people to escape the streets and make legal money, but now police departments are preying on the notion that rappers are using their stature and finances to lead gang activity. 

During Young Thug’s ill-fated bond hearing in June, Fulton County prosecutor Don Geary talked about an old traffic stop where a vehicle traveling behind Thug was “armed to the tee.” Thug had no guns or illegal items on him, but according to Geary, the rapper told Atlanta police during the stop that the people in the other car were his employees. So Geary later referenced lyrics about Thug “traveling with snipers” to sell the state’s theory that he’s the leader of a YSL gang, and the people in the other car were the crew’s “snipers.” They connected his fictional lyrics to his real life in a way that’s setting a dangerous precedent for all rappers. 

Rapping about “having snipers” is a long-running trope that few rap listeners take literally. Lil Tecca rhymed “shooters doing what I say so, because they’re on bankroll” on “Never Left,” years after a viral clip emerged where he was comically adamant that “I don’t have no straps for nobody.” Thug admitted in a pre-fame Reddit AMA session, “I make a product for a certain audience and I’m good at it,” and “I do this because I have a certain skill set that now allows me to get paid without the threat of doing federal time.” But now, the state is attempting to give him time, and they’re using his skillset against him. 

Gangsta rap, street rap, or whatever else one wants to call it, is no longer counterculture; it’s the fulcrum of rap, which is the nucleus of modern pop culture. 50 Cent rose to superstardom galvanizing the public with his nine shots to 11-times platinum origin story. Lil Wayne became the biggest rapper in the world unabashedly rapping about Blood ties. Today, Lil Baby, NBA Youngboy, 21 Savage, and Lil Durk are chart-topping, headlining rappers who get into that street talk with the best of them. The Eagles made Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” the soundtrack of their 2017 Super Bowl run, even with lyrics like, “If you ain’t about that murder game, then pussy nigga shut up.” Cardi B can rap “all of my opps get mixed with the grabba” at night and hold court on Good Morning America the next morning. Drake is the only pop star in history who consistently raps about having shooters. There are hoards of examples of artists with violent lyrics being mainstream in a way that wasn’t as common in the ‘90s. 

As 50 himself rapped, “America got a thing for this gangsta shit.” The subgenre has been able to assimilate further into pop culture for a variety of reasons. Artists like 50 Cent, Nelly, and Lil Wayne (and later Durk, Future and Lil Baby) went platinum with catchy, melodic music that captured the collective public in a manner that The Chronic’s lush G-Funk once did. Snoop Dogg has said that part of the album’s creative approach hinged on taking melodies from classic songs and turning them into some G-shit. “Many Men” would have still been a street classic if 50 dryly recited the hook. But the melody is what caught the attention of the masses, including Tom Brady, who posted a video of himself playing it while prepping for the 2019 AFC Championship Game. The hook sounded so good to sing that you pretended you had opps just to do so. And top-selling acts have continued to employ that simple edict on 2010s classics like Chief Keef’s “Love Sosa,” Future’s “Stick Talk,” or Pop Smoke’s “Welcome To The Party.” There are hundreds of artists merging rap with crooning these days—and some of them aren’t talking about love.

Young Thug bond hearing June 2, 2022

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Of course, the establishment’s attack on rappers’ artistic license is nothing new. In 1988, Assistant Director of the FBI office of public affairs Milt Ahlerich wrote the N.W.A a letter about their “Fuck Tha Police” song, warning that “advocating violence and assault is wrong and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action.” There was a national uproar over Ice T and his Body Count band’s “Cop Killer” song, which had former President George H.W. Bush and numerous police groups making public statements. The public outcry eventually caused the label to reissue Body Count’s self-titled debut without “Cop Killer.” C. Dolores Tucker was a civil rights activist who railed against Death Row Records in the ‘90s, once telling the LA Times that “the pimps in the entertainment industry who distribute gangsta rap are major contributors to the destruction of the African American community.”

But Tucker had ulterior motives. She was also a stockholder in Time Warner, who came to Suge Knight and asked him “to sign a document designating her as Death Row’s exclusive representative to negotiate a new ‘clean’ rap venture that she said would be financed by Time Warner,” according to Death Row in a lawsuit, as the LA Times reported in ‘96. The allegation calls her agenda into question.

Rap, as a Black art form, has always faced criminalization in a way that other genres have not. The depictions of violence, drug dealing, misogyny, and other societal ills shine a light on economically-deprived communities that many municipalities would rather forget. But instead of taking their lyrics as an appraisal of social conditions, rap critics have usually considered them the cause of the conditions. That sentiment has crept into courtrooms, with rap lyrics being increasingly used against Black defendants. 

As Lawyer Tyler Mann told us in January of 2020, “The few times you could ever find any sort of lyrics being used against somebody almost exclusively had to do with rap and exclusively had to do with a Black defendant.” Mann represented Taylor Montague, a Maryland man who was sentenced to 50 years for murder and gun-related charges. Maryland used lyrics he rapped on a jail call to help convict him, setting a dangerous precedent that Atlanta DA Fani Willis is following with her YSL indictment. While Montague is an amateur rapper, Thug and Gunna are platinum artists at the height of their notoriety. 

The YSL RICO hinges on the prosecution’s assertion that while Young Stoner Life is a label, Young Slime Life is a gang, and Thug is their leader who’s behind 50+ killings. One of the most damning charges in the indictment is the 2015 murder of Donovan “Peanut” Thomas Jr, who was an affiliate of YFN, a crew which Thug had a public rivalry with. The indictment references Thug purchasing the rental car that was allegedly used in the Thomas murder, a social media post where he said snitches should die, a wiretap where he allegedly told other people, “Y’all ain’t beat em up or shot them yet? Y’all boys getting soft,” and an Instagram stories threat to YFN Lucci that “if ain like what u do for your mother and kids I WOULDVE BEEN KILLED U.” 

During Thug’s bond hearing, prosecutor Don Geary reeled off dozens of Thug’s lyrics from the indictment such as, “I told them to shoot a hundred rounds, ready for war like I’m Russia … I get all type of cash. I’m a general,” and, “I killed his man in front of his momma / Like fuck lil bruh, sister, and his cousin.” None of those things indicate that Thug is a gang leader on their own merit. But the prosecution is attempting to glue the circumstantial evidence with his boastful lyrics to present a case that he’s running a criminal organization and orchestrating a violent beef with YFN. Gunna hasn’t been tabbed for any violent crimes in the indictment, but he’s being accused of a leadership role in YSL based on him wearing a YSL chain, appearing in the “Where You From?” music video, as well as two lyrics: “for slimes you know I kill” and “pay for that casket, that’s just if we whack em.”

Willis gloated during a May press conference that she viewed the RICO as a useful tool to ensnare a large number of people at once. RICOs place the weight of an entire group’s actions onto every individual trial, making acquittal a more difficult prospect with juries. Willis hinted that more prosecutions are coming for high-profile targets in Atlanta, which led many to believe she’s referring to rappers. Journalist George Chidi, who predicted the YSL indictment a month before it happened, told DJ Vlad that “a lot of these [Atlanta rappers]” who are “namechecking real world, murdering, armed robbery committing street gangs” are making it easier for prosecutors to “wrap a whole bunch of them up” in sweeping indictments. He also said, “You’d have to expect this kind of legal battle” with drill music, based on his assertion that artists are referencing real murders. His prediction casts a cloud over a nationwide scene of street rappers that has a higher volume of prominent acts than ever. 

The Chicago, New York, and now Jacksonville drill scenes are plagued with attrition via incarceration and the death of artists like Pop Smoke, King Von, and FBG Duck. The gang violence in these cities has existed before drill music, but incendiary diss songs like “Who I Smoke,” Coach Da Ghost’s “Hitlist,” and FBG Duck’s “Dead Bitches” are believed to be enflaming the beef even more. Artists (and gangs) are now worried about the optic of looking weak in the public eye and are trying to one-up their enemies in the disrespect department. But they also know the disrespect can be lucrative. TalkOfTheTownNY founder Coey Productions explained to Complex that many New York drill rappers have told her they diss because they know the drama garners attention. “These kids are trying to be connected, trying to get spins and whatever. They don’t know how to do it,” she said. “So they’re just doing what they know, and what they saw working. They’re really just on some, ‘Music is my only way out. We know when we give the fans what they want, that’s when the labels start calling.”

Those moments are more likely to be posted on social media rap accounts like DJ Akademiks, No Jumper, and Say Cheese, which chronicle ongoing beef and other rap controversies. Outlets like Akademiks and No Jumper cover rap happenings with an antagonistic tone that projects their lack of regard for any of the artists involved. Last June, rapper-activist Mysonne criticized Akademiks for joking, “Somebody gotta slide on” Lil Tum, who’s accused of fatally shooting King Von. He typed, “I been saying this for years @akademiks is a Cancer! He is literally trying to Amp beef where people are Dying!” Similarly, during an interview with Rico Recklezz, Adam22 of No Jumper suggested that Rico get involved in the ongoing ATK vs KTA beef in Jacksonville, which he deemed a “fun beef” despite people having died on both sides. With that statement, he not-so-subtly implied that Black violence, and death, is entertainment for him. What would No Jumper have done if that careless comment sparked a back and forth that led to violence? It likely would have posted about it, and profited from it. 

Both of those channels have amassed millions of followers and reportedly made both men millionaires. Social media rap accounts fuel an atmosphere where artists feel compelled to say and do nonsense in order to reach their viewership. And in many cases, the choices that street artists are making in attempts to further their careers end up hindering them. 

In February, New York City Mayor Eric Adams called for a ban on drill after the murder of 18-year-old rapper Chi Wvtts. He noted, “We pulled Trump off Twitter because of what he was spewing. Yet we are allowing music [with the] displaying of guns, violence. We allow this to stay on the sites.” Adams is a former NYPD officer with a tough-on-crime mayoral agenda, and pinning New York’s rising gun violence on drill rap gives him an easy scapegoat. 

Elsewhere during his press conference, Adams said, “I didn’t know Jayquan, but his death hit me hard because the more I found out about Jayquan’s story, the more I saw how many times he had been failed by a system that is supposed to help boys like him.” This sentiment parallels with his recent comments in the Supreme Team documentary that Black youth in 1980s Queens weren’t “born on third base” like their conservative critics, adding that they figuratively “weren’t even in the ballpark” of success. His public comments indicate that he knows exactly why the violence is happening. But instead of working out how he can offer more opportunity to these communities, he finds it easier to serve the “born on third base” crowd. And he’s manipulating Black art to justify why he should do so. 

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Fani Willis is doing the same in Atlanta with the YSL case. And if she’s successful, more prosecutors nationwide will likely follow her strategy of linking rap artists to crime around them in order to get high-profile prosecutions. The stats show that violent crime has been up in cities like New York, LA, Atlanta, and others over the course of the pandemic, and rap offers prosecutors easy, high-profile targets to blame the “crime wave.” 

As Ice T tweeted after the YSL indictment, “It’s easy to make the streets think you’re a gangster. It’s hard to convince the feds you’re not.” There are many wonderful, exciting things going on in rap, but when it comes to the street side of things, these scenes feel like 18-wheelers speeding down a hill, with rap consumers and artists bracing for the next errant turn and hoping their favorite isn’t next to be targeted. On a recent episode of his podcast, Joe Budden proclaimed that he feels New York drill rap will be “over” soon, because of “government-issued writing on the wall.” 

Artists are starting to navigate this predicament in their music. Lil Durk started off his 7220 deluxe album by saying, “This deluxe is all cap, this shit is not real,” offering a preemptive response to anyone who may take his lyrics literally. He did the same on his “AHH HA” track noting, “Everything I’m saying, this motherfucker all props just in case the police listening.” Virginia rapper Monster Corleone took it a step further with “I’m Cappin,” a YSL indictment-inspired record where he rhymes, “I’m just portraying this shit, it’s a image

I’m just a rapper, this shit is a gimmick. As he told us, “One thing that people gravitate towards is a person speaking their truth or speaking the real, and now we can’t do that. Or even if it’s not real, we don’t want to act like it’s real.”

It’s a sign of the times that rappers are having to preamble records by reminding listeners to give them their artistic license. At one time, it was implied. But today’s stigma of rap as a violent art form is eroding rappers’ rights as artists. 

Anti-rap stigma isn’t new amongst the establishment, but the legal system’s drive to build sweeping cases around artists is. It’s unlikely that prosecutors stop a practice that’s working, just as it’s unlikely that social rap media accounts stop feeding the desires of their supporters for financial gain. For now, the best recourse is for the people to fight the legal system that’s criminalizing rap. Jay-Z, Meek Mill, and Big Sean advocated for a recently-passed “Rap Music On Trial” bill that limits New York prosecutors’ ability to use rap lyrics in trials. Congressmen Hank Johnson of Georgia and Jamaal Bowman of New York have introduced the RAP Act, which would do the same nationwide. More artists in rap hubs should be getting behind similar legislation in their state, and rap consumers should support those efforts. The rap world is our community, and the people who bring us our favorite music should be able to do so without having to worry about if someone is trying to roll their bars into a case. 

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