Chicago’s New Violence

chief keef

And just like that, gangsta rap is back.

Well, not exactly. Despite their best efforts, trap rappers like Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame appear to be perpetually on the cusp of ubiquity, while the closest thing mainstream music has to a gangsta rap superstar is the nearly 40-year-old Rick “Rozay the Boss” Ross, who is actually a former correctional officer, a.k.a the least gangsta profession ever. For a long time now, it has seemed that in the Kanye West era of hip-hop, traditional gangsta rap (i.e. music including tales of gunplay, selling drugs and resisting mainstream society in general) has been relegated to underground rappers like Freddie Gibbs. But right now, in Chicago, there’s a new breed of gangsta rap on the rise. Artists like Chief Keef, Lil Durk, Lil Reese and King Louie are a younger, cheaper, and some would say meaner kind of rap star.

By now it’s common knowledge that Keef and company had been feuding with recently deceased 18-year-old Chicago rapper Lil JoJo (born Joseph Coleman), who was gunned down while riding around in the south side’s Englewood on the back of a bicycle on September 4. Following his death, an alarmingly large group of people, presumably supporters of Keef, took to Twitter to publicly ridicule Coleman. Keef himself tweeted, “Its Sad Cuz Dat N—- JoJo Wanted To Be Jus Like Us #LMAO.”

Of course, Chief Keef later stated that his account had been hacked. This is all too suspicious, though, since Keef also claimed his Twitter was hacked following a message he released about Lupe Fiasco, saying, “Lupe Fiasco a hoe ass n—- And wen I see him I’ma smack him like da lil bitch he is #300.” Keef’s Tweet was in response to an interview Fiasco (a fellow Chicago native) gave, where he said, “Chief Keef scares me,” elaborating, “Not him specifically, but just the culture he represents… The murder rate in Chicago is skyrocketing, and you see who’s doing it and perpetrating it–they all look like Chief Keef. When it comes to the point that, you know, that kids who are doing the killings, and they’re kids 13 to 19 years old, and you can replicate that in New Orleans, you can replicate that in Oakland. All the kids look the same.”

Fiasco has a point. His love for Chicago is unquestionable, and it’s clear that he’s not a proponent of the awful violence that continues to plague this beloved city. His earnest statement is almost enough to make one reconsider the value in something like his pseudo-anthemic “The Show Goes On” (almost, but not quite). Keef, on the other hand, apparently has no problem with the sickness that is inherent in Chicago’s South Side. Some would go as far as saying that he’s a supporter of the Black Disciples, perhaps best known for being longtime rivals of another infamous Chicago street gang, the Gangster Disciples. To be fair, Keef hasn’t openly acknowledged any correlation between himself and the Black Disciples, but police seem to believe his frequent use of the “#300” on Twitter is a thinly veiled reference to the gang’s symbol. His beef with JoJo would then make further sense, considering Coleman released a song claiming to be a “B.D.K.” (Black Disciple Killer) not long before his death.

For the record, Chief Keef is a terrible MC as well. As if the fact that his now-retracted episode of Pitchfork’s “Selector” was set in a shooting range wasn’t bad enough, his God-awful freestyle pretty much sealed the deal on his unlikability. And despite being an underground success, Keef hasn’t done himself any favors in some of the statements he’s made about popular hip-hop artists. In addition to his allegedly fake attack on Lupe, a grainy video of Keef surfaced where he appears to call Lil Wayne a “homo.” And then of course there was his reaction to Kanye West’s remix of his breakthrough hit “I Don’t Like.”

In another statement he made on Twitter (one that he hasn’t yet withdrawn), Keef called out West, saying “@kanyewest ain’t do s— for me Hoppin on da song wasn’t enuff I made myself hot #300 all by myself.” Keef claims he never actually insulted Wayne, and his feud with West seems to have cooled down. You have to hand it to him, though; it’s rare someone can start a career almost exclusively based on the list of people they’ve antagonized. He may be the apotheosis of hip-hop in the World Star age.

The real problem here isn’t that Keef loves to shoot his mouth off. It’s that he and his crew seem to be so nihilistically aggressive in their beliefs. There’s a difference between a rapper who comes from the “hood,” and discusses what they’ve been through, and how they dealt with it, and the likes of Keef, who does impoverished people no favors by focusing on only the most degrading parts of their existence. At its most severe, this depiction of impoverished life is akin to something like NBC’s “Stars Earn Stripes,” the new television show that glorifies the trappings of war rather than focusing on its horrors or asking why we’re fighting in the first place.

Unfortunately, this argument isn’t foolproof for several reasons. Just to play devil’s advocate, allow me to make a case against myself.

1)     It’s possible to say that gangsta rap never really went away and just changed shape. The last time I really remember it being a part of the mainstream (other than Rozay) was 50 Cent. Get Rich or Dir Trying is, arguably, the last major label album to tell a classic story of the street lifestyle: guy sells drugs, gets shot, becomes a rapper, gets rich, etc. Just because Jay-Z is a pacifist now doesn’t mean there aren’t rappers who come from a rough background. Pusha-T didn’t exactly have a privileged upbringing, but aside from a few shots back and forth between he and Weezy, he doesn’t come off as particularly menacing. Instead, he’s just another rapper who’s happy talking about spending money and being awesome (albeit with more skills than many of his peers). Then there’s the likes of Danny Brown, who might come off as “gangsta” if he wasn’t so eccentric, or A$AP Rocky, who would seem a lot tougher if he wasn’t obsessed with clothing and being a “pretty motherfucker.” To crucify any new style of gangsta rap, when it’s a continually changing and evolving type of music, seems a bit unfair.

2)     Let’s just go ahead and address the big white elephant in the room: My parents went to college. I’m from an upper-middle-class suburb of Milwaukee. And I’m an unabashed fan of mayonnaise. Basically, I’m as Caucasian as it gets. But I’m also a huge fan of hip-hop. I’ve never been a particularly confident person, and at some point in my life I got tired of brooding rock stars who couldn’t write a song without crying. I like the confidence of hip-hop. I like the swagger. And yes, I also like the story. Call it white tourism if you want, but it’s fascinating to invest yourself in a culture that is not (or at least not originally) yours. It’s true, I saw The Interrupters, and like everyone else, I said, “I can’t believe that’s the city I live in!” So hey, who am I to judge?

3)     At the end of the day, it’s art, and artists have the right to say what they want.

So there you have it. If you want to disagree with me, I understand why. But personally, I still don’t think any of the above excuses Chief Keef’s behavior. I have no desire to see Biggie and Tupac repeated for the Internet age. Gangsta rap works as art when it has been lived, not when you’re living it.

The fact that Chief Keef and crew are so young makes the situation all the more disturbing. JoJo sounded like he’d barely been through puberty in his verses. Keef, on the other hand, is cocksure, and sounds old for having only lived 17 years. Neither rapper’s flow is anything noteworthy, but the fact that these teenagers have such open enthusiasm for death is. When Freddie Gibbs talks about selling crack and putting people in the hospital, no one pauses, because he’s 30. He’s lived that life. It’s in his past.

But as the events of September 4 demonstrate, this sub-sect of young Chicago rappers is still very much a part of it. In comparison to the real-life brutality that’s part of the world inhabited by Chief Keef, the made-up horror stories of fellow upstarts Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All seem positively silly. Make no mistake: Just because they are famous, and just because they grew up disenfranchised, doesn’t make it any less disturbing that these are basically children, who are advocating killing each other over nothing. How young is too young to live with murder? 15? 13? 12? To be clear, this is still a problem in America, and almost nothing is being done about it.

As a human being, and to a lesser extent as a lover of hip-hop, I can’t help but be bothered by Chief Keef. The fact that he comes from a city that is important to me, and that he is a part of a culture that is destroying a part of that city from the inside out, makes it impossible to be comfortable with him.

I guess in the end it comes down the chicken and the egg: Does hip hop merely reflect the violence in society, or is it helping to sustain that violence? I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that as I’m finishing this, the MTV VMAs are going on, and they are featuring performances by no less than three very prominent hip-hop artists. Hip-hop isn’t going anywhere, so we better figure out what it means to us. Also on TV right now is President Barack Obama, speaking at the Democratic National Convention. Regardless of how you feel about him, it bares mentioning that he spent time on the South Side as a community organizer. Chicago is a great city, capable of turning out great people. If we don’t want Chicago to go anywhere, we better figure out what this city means to us too.