Chief Keef's entrée into hip-hop earlier this year was a quick and unusual one. At 16, Keef had made a small name for himself on Chicago's south side with a handful of enthusiastic but poorly produced rap videos, the most promising of which was "I Don't Like." As its name portends, "I Don't Like" is a musical rundown of the things that chap Keef's hide, including bitch niggas, snitch niggas, and fake shoes. The video he recorded to accompany the song depicts him and his friends smoking a lot of weed, passing around a handgun, and dancing around his grandmother's house shirtless.
Rap rainmaker Kanye West eventually got word of "I Don't Like," and in May he created a remix of the song featuring himself, Pusha T, Jadakiss, and Big Sean. Keef had to record his verse for the track from his grandmother's home, where he was on house arrest for pointing a gun at a cop. Soon after the Kanye-anointed "I Don't Like" update was released, a star was born.
By June Keef had signed a record deal with Interscope, home to, among others, 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, and Eminem. He performed at T.I.'s birthday party in front of thousands, and he began recording with artists as established as Young Jeezy and Soulja Boy. Ascending so high so quickly appeared to go to Keef's head—how could it not?—and it wasn't long before he was shit-talking veteran artists, as he did when he wrote off Lil' Wayne as "a homo" (though he did say he'd be willing to do a track with the Cash Money superstar).
As the fame went, so went the press. Gawker called Keef, who is now 17, "hip-hop's next big thing." Rolling Stone tried to interview Keef, but it apparently did not go well: "He was either very nervous or very apathetic, and undoubtedly very high," concluded writer Matthew Trammell. The Fader invited Keef to its offices and then asked him to empty his pockets for its "Things I Carry" series. What Keef was carrying that day was an iPhone, a stack of $50 bills, and eight Magnum condoms—the kind of stuff you're supposed to have on your person when you're a teenaged rap star. Not to be outdone, Pitchfork invited Keef to a gun range, where they videotaped him going back and forth between popping off a few rounds and freestyling over beats. This particular interview decision would eventually blow up in Pitchfork's face, but we'll get to that later.
Everything seemed to be going swimmingly for young Keef for a few months. But then, as is unfortunately the case too often in Chicago these days, somebody got shot.
Late in the evening on Tuesday, September 4, an 18-year-old boy named Joseph Coleman was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood. Every life and death is different, but what set Coleman's killing particularly far apart from the hundreds of others in Chicago this year is who his enemies were: Chief Keef, and Keef's allies Lil Reese and Lil Durk, all of whom are affiliated with the Black Disciples street gang, according to Chicago Police.
Cops say that when Keef, Reese, and Durk shout out "300" and "Lamron" in songs and tweets, they're directly calling out to their set, which resides near 63rd Street and Normal Avenue in Englewood. Conversely, Coleman, whose rap name was Lil Jojo, reportedly had ties to the Gangster Disciples, a rival to the Black Disciples. If the gang feud wasn't enough on its own, Jojo (I'll use this name herein for clarity) made his dislike of the Black Disciples—and thus Keef, Reese, and Durk—even more pronounced in music videos like "3HunnaK," in which he waves around handguns thicker than his adolescent arms while shouting "BDK!" BDK stands for "Black Disciple Killer."
In the immediate aftermath of Jojo's slaying, police working on the case might not have been too interested in following what appeared to be mostly a rap beef between high school kids. But then Keef ill advisedly took to his Twitter account. Jojo had been dead for only hours before Keef tweeted, "HahahahahhahahahahahahahaahhAAHAHAHAHA #RichNiggaShit" and then "Its Sad Cuz Dat Nigga Jojo Wanted to Be Jus Like Us #LMAO." The backlash against Keef's callousness from other Twitter users was instant—"I'm deleting Chief Keef from my iTunes & will never support his career," wrote one—and he quickly tried to pull an Anthony Weiner and claim his account was hacked. People weren't buying that, naturally, at which point Keef resorted to tweeting out the kinds of banal platitudes that come on treacly bookmarks: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars," was one of the most cringeworthy. It was a pretty transparent ploy to look charming and innocent, and hip-hop artist Phonte, of the group Foreign Exchange, tweeted of Keef exactly what many others were thinking: "DUDE. All of a sudden this nigga is Deepak Winfrey-Vanzant."
It wasn't long before the cops were also a bit distrustful of Keef and his motives. The day after Jojo's murder, a Chicago Sun-Times story reported that, among other things, police were looking at Keef's tweets to better understand a gang war that's increasingly being fueled via digital disses and chest-thumping:
Chicago police officers were on the street Wednesday night looking for Coleman's killer. Police are looking to see if his murder is connected to an ongoing conflict in Englewood between the Gangster Disciples and Black Disciples street gangs that has been playing out in a series of threats on social media sites.
"Two gangs are fighting each other, going at each other all over the Internet and this is all stemming from that," a police source said.
Police are also looking into whether Coleman had gang affiliations, and whether Keef or any of his associates are connected to the gang conflict or Coleman's murder, the source said.
Many of Chief Keef's Tweets include a hashtag notation "#300" - a known reference, police say, to the Black Disciples street gang. And Coleman appears to have been warring online with the Black Disciples for months.
It's now been two weeks since Jojo was killed, and police have made no arrests. Though Keef may have been an asshole on Twitter, that's not illegal yet, and so the fledgling rap star wanders free. 50 Cent, no stranger to legal drama himself, has come to the Keef's defense, saying that Jojo was an antagonist who tempted fate. "If there's an arrest made because they done something, then you can say that got something to do with [Keef]," Fiddy told the Sun-Times last week. "But other than that if [Lil Jojo] is active [in a gang] and showing guns like that how do you put that on him? How do you assume that?"
Fortunately for Keef, it's unlikely that a rumor about him being involved in any sort of gun violence will hurt his career. Getting put on house arrest for a weapons charge was the initial fuel for his reputation's fire, and this latest controversy bolsters that reckless young hellion image. Besides that, the list of rappers charged with gun crimes only to emerge mostly unscathed is long and star-studded, including T.I., Corey Gunz, Beanie Sigel, Gucci Mane, Soulja Boy, Prodigy, Ja Rule, Young Jeezy, Fabolous, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Lil Wayne, and Jay-Z, to name a few. Keef's alleged ties to violence and the tools of violence are being frowned upon by many in media currently, but these sorts of ties are nothing new or unique in the rap world.
Pitchfork rightly apologized for and retracted its interview with Keef at the gun range, calling it "insensitive and irresponsible." It may have been bad business for them, but it will most likely be the opposite for Keef.
[Image by Jim Cooke/Photos by Daniel Drake]