Before he was arrested last December, Chief Keef, a 16-year-old hip-hop star, was almost completely unknown outside of Chicago's South Side. He had a song called "Bang," which had more than 400,000 views on YouTube, and he had a mixtape, and a dedicated following amongst Chicago high school students. But he was not a rapper who was known outside of the local high schools. His Facebook profile indicated that he worked as a sales rep for "Selling Dope." He lived with his grandmother.
But last year, on Dec. 4, Chief Keef's rap career changed. That afternoon, gunshots were fired from a Blue Pontiac Grand Prix in the Washington Park neighborhood of Chicago, just South of Hyde Park, and when police arrived at the scene, a suspect allegedly pointed a gun at them. The officers fired a shot back. Two young men, including Chief Keef, were apprehended; a third escaped. Rumors swirled that Keef had been killed in a shootout with police; in fact, he'd been arrested and charged with aggravated UUW, or unlawful use of a weapon. He was released sometime around New Year's Day to live at his grandmother's apartment for 30 days under house arrest, followed by another 30 days of home confinement.
When his house arrest ended, on Jan. 2, WorldStarHipHop—a website that hosts hip-hop-related videos for an estimated two million unique viewers per day—posted a video of a young child in a hysterical fit of excitement. Keef had just been released, and the young boy was celebrating. He bounded around the room, rapping along to "Aimed At You," one of Chief Keef's biggest songs. The earliest comments from the site's largely hip-hop-oriented readership were marked by confusion: "Chief who?" "Who the fuck is cheif Keef?"
Keef was an entirely unknown outside of certain corners of Chicago's South Side, but he had been thrust suddenly onto the national stage.
Within days, his story had gone viral, as curious viewers searched YouTube and found a series of Chief Keef videos. The first result was "Bang." The music video has a gritty look to it; washed in hazy green, a shirtless rapper stands in front of a group of teenaged men and delivers his lyrics. His short dreadlocks are tucked under a bucket hat, and he gives the camera a grim look as smoke spills from his mouth. This is Chief Keef. The music's swirling strings bear the mark of the producer Lex Luger, whose style drove artists like Atlanta's Waka Flocka Flame to chart success two years earlier, but the rhythmic feel is looser, asphyxiated. Keef begins: "That smoke's got me gone, can hear it in the air/we on top like some stairs, don't give a fuck, I be goin' to hell."
Immediately, Chicago's hip-hop world started buzzing. No one tuned in to Chicago's hip-hop scene seemed familiar with Chief Keef, which was odd. He had no blog mentions, no radio spins and no newspaper coverage, aside from his December arrest. Andrew Barber, creator of the Chicago hip-hop blog Fake Shore Drive, posted about the sudden influx of interest in the young rapper in the wake of the WorldStar video, and unearthed a year-old mixtape, Bang. On the cover, 16-year-old Keef was holding a handgun.
Within a few weeks, Keef was something of an online phenomenon—even while he was still under home confinement. The Bay Area rapper Lil B tweeted to Chief Keef and recorded an offbeat "Bang" remix. Soulja Boy, the original viral rap superstar, followed suit, recording a remix to Keef's "3 Hunna" and offering to sign Keef to his SODMG label imprint. Keef, recognizing the new demand, began releasing new material. A week after his release, he shot a video in his home for a track entitled "Everyday's Halloween," which opened with an introduction from Keef's grandmother. She complained good-naturedly about the young men in the house "every day" who "can't even cook and eat right."
"I don't know who's gonna get famous for this shit, but I know one thing," she deadpanned, as the cameraman snickered. "When they make it, they're leaving."
On an unseasonably warm January day, I took a trip to Keef's grandmother's apartment, where he was still living on home confinement. The building is on Chicago's South Side in the Washington Park neighborhood; many still consider the area the "East Side," because it's still a few blocks east of State Street, where the addresses flip from east to west. It's just west of Woodlawn, and south of Hyde Park, where the University of Chicago sits on an island of prosperity amid an ocean of working and lower class neighborhoods.
Keef had just completed a month on house arrest, and was now living under less restrictive conditions. In Keef's videos—particularly the ones shot since his release—his grandmother's home is re-imagined as the setting of a horror movie, with grungy lighting and intimidating, dreadhead roughnecks mean-mugging the camera, the walls of his room covered in a handwritten scrawl.
But that's just Keef's bedroom. His grandmother's living room was well-lit and nicely decorated, full of plants and color-coordinated décor. There were many family photographs, including a freestanding tower of portraits the height of a small child, and several photographs of President Barack Obama. Keef was out, we were told, but would be arriving soon. A group of friends and associates, including his producer, DJ Kenn, were already waiting in the back.
Kenn, who declined to give his real name for this article, is originally from the Yamagata Prefecture of Japan. He produced the beat for "Bang," as well as several of Keef's other songs. He told me that he discovered hip-hop as a teenager living in Japan. In 2005, after he turned 18, Kenn moved to Tokyo, and within two years followed a friend to New York City. The United States completely changed Kenn's perceptions of hip-hop.
"In Japan, it's different," he explained in a thick accent. "People get older and they start to listen to it. Right here, it's like babies listen to hip-hop, they grow up with the rhythm."
Kenn had planned to spend just a year in the United States, but within ten months of moving to New York, he flew to Chicago. He spoke little-to-no English, and knew nobody in the city; he just knew he wanted to make music. Chief Keef's uncle Keith discovered him walking down the street in Woodlawn (a neighborhood that is 98 percent African American), and found him a place to stay. "He took me to an apartment right there across the street"—Kenn gestures out the front window—"and I stayed over there and started to do music. Keef came through, [Fredo] Santana came through, and we started recording."
"First time I came to the studio, I didn't fuck with a lot of people. But when Keef came to my studio, I was like, this boy..." he trails off, gesturing, as if to gather thoughts he hadn't put into words before. "He's different. [He] always comes with something new. Everybody is trying to do somebody [else] — no disrespect to anybody—but Keef, each song he comes with something new, just him."
Sudden success has caught Kenn off guard. He clearly felt swept up in the emotion and energy of the past few months: "It's a whole new feeling I've never had before. It's just crazy. I've been [wearing] the same jeans for almost a year. I couldn't buy shit, I was broke as hell. And now they're saying, ‘y'all are going to make it.'"
A hip-hop video going viral is hardly a new story. But what's unique about Keef's rise is just how late in the game the wider Internet world has caught on. The WorldStar video was just the right match to light a fuse that had already been primed. Now that it's lit, it's revealed an entire subculture that's been invisible for years. Who is Chief Keef, and how did he obtain such a strong, largely localized audience without the usual gatekeepers noticing?
Keef used a rather proven system, borne of a long history of enterprising Chicago rappers, that combined viral attraction with a loyal, localized fan base. East Side rappers Big Homie Doe and King Louie began their careers by emulating the path of Bump J, the last Chicago street rapper to unite the disparate gangs that divide Chicago's street rap scene. Doe and Louie would burn CDs and distribute them by hand, just as Bump J had done ("Schools, bus stops, El stations, parties we would go to"). And they also tapped into the schools.
"There are so many schools on the East Side," Doe explained. "The Kenwoods, the Dunbars. And the CPS's [Chicago Public Schools], once you've got those, they spread around throughout the communities. Each person from that school might be from a different area. So they go back to that area and spread it. It's like a domino effect."
Chief Keef's rise also unveiled many of the other young artists whose names were ringing in Chicago's high schools. He and his friends shared street stories buried in local vernacular and references to an intricate network of sets, gangs, neighborhoods and sub-neighborhoods that can sound almost like a second language to the uninitiated. There was Fredo Santana, a heavily tattooed rapper with a strong presence. There was Young Chop, the in-house producer behind Keef's "3hunna." There was Lil Durk, whose tracks "I'ma Hitta" and "Sneak Dissin'" introduced the world to local terms for street soldiers and the behavior of backstabbers, respectively. And there was Pac Man, a rising star killed before his time, known for debuting the dance known as Dro style.
Some of the most popular artists in Keef's South Side scene were female. The most well-known was Shady, whose "Go In" video seems innocent enough, until one girl brandishes a handgun halfway through. There was swaggering Katie Got Bandz, whose single "I Need a Hitta" ("I need a hitta, dread head drilla, cashed out nigga, ‘cause I'm a lady hitta") has one of the catchiest choruses, and Sasha Gohard, whose video for "What We Do" found the petite teen star pulling a handgun larger than her head.
Many of these artists were successful enough to parlay local YouTube fame into popular live performances. Chief Keef performed two concerts in 2011; at least one of them, at the club Adrianna's, was met with a rapturous reception. Alex Riley, a 21-year-old cinematographer, saw the event firsthand. "It had to be 800 people in there. I'm talking about, maybe 75, 80 percent knew ‘Bang' word-for-word."
Interview enough rappers and you'll hear a hundred stories about how their next record is going to be a classic, that it will stand the test of time, how they'll be the ones to change the game forever. It's not a terribly interesting story, but if some people couldn't convince you of it, hip-hop wouldn't be nearly as fun to listen to. Keef's a good salesman because he truly believes in his own product. This is what all great rappers before Keef have done-once they've created and maintained the aura of triumph, success follows.
"I ain't like nobody," the 16-year-old said that afternoon. "You listen to me, you don't hear people rap like me. I've got something that everybody's following. I might get some line from somebody, just if I wanted to"—his emphasis— "but me, I'm my own person. I do everything me. How I rap comes from my hood."
One thing Keef's YouTube success made clear is that music no longer needs to be mediated by the old national entertainment industry to reach an audience. Keef took off at a grassroots level, before managers or PR people could even climb aboard; his music, unlike many hyped artists that came before him, is almost purely audience-tested. But his success points to a story that goes much deeper than simply going viral.
Keef may have developed a loyal audience with the internet, but it was built upon existing relationships. Locally, his popularity relied on a different engine, and it's one that could prove key for establishing a real, renewable local music scene. Keef's engine wasn't just YouTube; it was the Chicago Public Schools—YouTube has just made this world visible to the outside for the first time. While the internet has certainly democratized the taste-making process, it's also become a confusing measure of popularity; where label A&R's used to seek out artists who had proven local followings, today they seem happy to sit back and wait for internet buzz to reach a tipping point. Keef, though, has what essentially amounts to the modern industry's ideal formula: a self-produced internet frenzy paired with a committed, local fan base.
And he did it all as a teenager, with some computer equipment and the help of a couple of close friends.
"I knew that was going to happen," Keef said about Bang's success, as we sat in his living room. One quickly gets the impression that, for Keef, insecurity or self-doubt are considered a waste of time. A few weeks later, and just a few days before the release of his new mixtape, he'd be placed on house arrest again. For now, though, the group sat around, listening to music, clowning with each other, smoking marijuana, and eating McDonalds. At one point, Keef and Kenn sparred playfully over who would get to use the computer chair. Their shared excitement was contagious; it was clear the natural high of sudden success had yet to wear off.
Keef had just recorded a track with King Louie, another sign of Keef's rising status in the city. They'd recorded a song together before, but Keef's only contribution had been a few adlibs-and it still set traffic records on Fake Shore Drive. The duo's follow-up, on which Keef had a full verse and chorus, was entitled "Winning." It hadn't yet been leaked on the internet, but we listened to it at least 20 times that afternoon, as the light shifted and smoke unfurled.
"I can't lose, bitch, I'm so used to winning," Keef rapped on the hook, "Fuck with my family and you are finished."
Chief Keef's second mixtape, Back from the Dead, was released earlier today. "Bang" now has close to a million views on YouTube.
David Drake is a Chicago-born and Chicago-based freelance writer and occasional DJ who has written for the Chicago Tribune, Pitchfork Media, The Fader, Complex, Vibe, the Village Voice and somanyshrimp.com. He can be reached on twitter @somanyshrimp.
Photo by Daniel Drake.