The Occupation of Chiraq

Yesterday morning, Chicago police detained "drill" rap sensation Chief Keef—born Keith Cozart—in connection with a shooting in suburban Northfield, Ill. Hours earlier, Keef had posted photos of himself with fellow rapper Ballout posing with a submachine gun, a semi-automatic rifle, and three loaded Rugers. Just in case you were inclined to presume Keef's innocence.

The detention is Keef's latest, not his first. Before he was old enough to drive, even, Chief Keef had both a rap sheet and rap stardom. Two years ago, Keef was arrested following a shootout with Chicago police outside his grandmother's apartment complex in Englewood, on Chicago's South Side. He was charged with three counts of aggravated assault due to his injuring officers on the scene, plus one count of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon.

Keef, then 15, had already been arrested earlier that year, and charged with the manufacturing and distribution of heroin, a Class X felony, which had landed Keef at his grandmother's spot in the first place, on house arrest.

Then, in July 2012, the Chicago-born music website Pitchfork invited Keef to a gun range for a video interview. The cheeky concept snared the rapper in violation of his probation related to all the felony drug possession and weapons charges from a year earlier, nearly landing Keef back in jail as a result. (Pitchfork later retracted and apologized for the segment.)

A few months later, 18-year-old rapper Lil Jojo—of the Gangster Disciples' Bricksquad gang faction—was gunned down in Englewood on South Princeton Avenue, on his bike, five hours after antagonizing local rival Lil Reese via Twitter. Keef took to Twitter:

The several guards and police officers on hand for Jojo's wake evacuated the funeral home once the groupie legion of mourners swarmed too excited, a stampede crush around Jojo's open casket.

Hip hop critics and Chicago high schoolers agree: Drill is the future. The South Side scene's explosive popularity has made megastars and millionaires of a few ambitious teens, and new, expensively produced documentaries on the scene are turning up the heat of the spotlight. The music is undeniably vital and relevant.

Yet the neighborhoods from where the music comes are still among the nation's most dangerous, and its young artists celebrate a terrifying familiarity with violence and cruelty. What can a critic do? And more importantly, what can a teenage rapper?

The Occupation of Chiraq

Drill music is doomsday dance tracks with trap drums. Subterranean beats punctuated by .38 blowback and electrocuted snares. Videos shot in the barren living rooms of project apartments; dreadlocks whiplashing in weed smoke saunas. Since 2011, drill has been hyping local gang sets, murder plots, dope retail, and codeine leisure—the glory-sought life of a South Side teenager.

Earlier this year two new hip-hop documentaries on the Chicago drill scene appeared. There's The Field, a forty-minute primer, brought to you by brawl-video archive WorldStarHipHop, and there's Chiraq, a weekly, nine-part series, appearing on Vice's music website Noisey, that explores drill's origins, its premier talents, and its predominance as the boom-boom hustle soundtrack of the city's South Side.

Both documentaries feature invading camera crews chasing comment from drill's foremost rappers and producers, and their expansive entourages. Both feature a battalion's stock of semi-automatic weapons, wielded mostly by shirtless teenage boys, many of them shackled by ankle monitors on house arrest.

In Chiraq, we meet countless teen clingers, handlers, weed-carriers as the cameras trail producer Thomas Morton—the self-effaced "nerdy Jew" who anchors the project—from one Englewood hangout to the next in his investigation of hype and fame. Apart from chasing Chief Keef through New York's Times Square in episode three, the Noisey crew spends most of their road time circling Chicago's grimmest real estate. When Morton visits South Side's Little Village for a late night backstage with corner boy troupe MGS, he confesses his relief in the next morning's recap: "nobody shot anybody," which was "maybe shitty of me to have expected."

An episode later, when a shot does pop off in a venue parking lot dimmed by nightfall, everyone squeals, everyone ducks. Ah, just the backfiring of a shitty car. Cautiously, everyone recovers upright. The neighborhood kids laugh, and the camera crew laughs. It's unclear if they're laughing with each other.

Among elder rap fans and Chicago natives, there's a certain angst about the music press' hype of Chicago's drill scene. Glorification of violence, tourism among the dogs, class exoticism, white saviorism: these are the crimes alleged by the critics who resent hip hop journalism's click-baiting of a homicide epidemic. One North Side native accuses "outlets like Stereogum...and Pitchfork" of turning a blind eye to the "transgressions" of drill artists, "essentially pretending their violent rhetoric is mere fantasy." The Chicago Reader disparaged the Noisey documentary in particular as "a tour of reaffirmation" bent on presenting a bunch of kids from the hoods precisely as any safe-harbored fan of gangsta rap might fantasize them.

And here's the thing: The studio mics, the mixing equipment, the Steadicams—before the record label swooped in, someone had to finance the scene. So no, the gang shout-outs aren't just fantastical posturing. The kids are indeed "about that life."

Among the neighborhood sets—Keef's "300" and "BDK" crews, JoJo's "Bricksquad," Durk's "OTF"—the overlap and rivalry is quite real, typically illicit, and occasionally violent. Peeda Pan, the 32-year-old A&R at Interscope who manages Glory Boyz Entertainment, summarizes the group's native origins in South Side gang culture:

In Chicago, you've got the . . . Black Disciples. So "300" is just another way of saying the Black Disciples. And everyone in Glory Boyz Entertainment is an organization derived from the Black Disciples, as far as all the artists. Its origins didn't necessarily originate with music. It started as some street shit or whatever.

The Black Disciples, about 15,000-strong, are a gang dynasty that traffics narcotics and fear throughout Chicago's South Side. And now nine of their foot soldiers—including Chief Keef, Lil Reese, and Fredo Santana—are signed to multi-million dollar contracts via Interscope. Hustle, indeed.

The Occupation of Chiraq

For his part, Lil Durk, a "superstar-in-waiting" who's featured in both documentaries, is relieved to stress that his next order of business, now that he's signed and financed by Def Jam, is to get his two young sons and daughter the hell out of Chicago. Durk's own father, Dontay Banks, is serving a life sentence in federal prison for crack cocaine distribution. He was first incarcerated when Durk was a toddler.

Can you be a drill rapper and leave Chicago? The scene, as far as its fans and artists are concerned, is inseparable from its mythic origin place: "Chiraq," the moniker that essentializes Chicago's many unflattering distinctions.

Chicago is one of America's most segregated metropolises. It's the nation's fifth-highest urban unemployment rate. And, by one metric or another, Chicago has ranked as an American capital of homicide and violent crime since 2005. In August 2012, the city recorded 22 murders in a single week; and then another 22 murders in the first eleven days of 2013. Even as national and city-wide homicide rates continue to fall, consistent with a half-century trend, an expanding share of Chicago's homicides are linked to the city's gangs.

The Chicago Police Department's long war against the Black Gangster Disciple Nation and its rival factions led to incarceration of some of city's biggest kingpins, yielding a decentralization of various gang leadership throughout the 80s and 90s. By the turn of century, Chicago's murder rate plummeted—and then so did the project housing towers, targeted by Mayor Richard M. Daley's "Plan for Transformation" in his administration's efforts to flatten saturation of poverty and violent crime in certain parts of the city.

Yet the eventual decline of Chicago's juvenile incarceration rate from 2001 through 2010 coincided with a gradual concentration of shoot-outs and murders to several neighborhoods on Chicago's South and West Sides. Daley's "Transformation" may have softened the skyline, the violence that defined Chicago's high-rise projects didn't disappear; the people simply dispersed, and the gangs metastasized anew.

Fifteen years and more than one billion dollars later, Chicago's massive experiment with mixed-income housing has displaced about 16,000 families from condemned high-rises, and the Chicago Housing Authority is only recently proceeding with the second, rehabilitation phase of the Chicago's "Plan Forward," to finish development of the 25,000 mixed-income housing units meant to accommodate residents displaced by the city's "Transformation" phase, which booted thousands of the city's poorest residents from North Side's Cabrini-Green and the South Side's Robert Taylor Homes to low-lying clusters of the same-old poverty, drug trade-related violence and all. Mayor Rahm Emanuel now confronts these entrenched, familiar challenges of urban decay. Last year CPD Superintendent Garry McCarthy authorized more than $100 million in beat-cop overtime pay over the past few years to strengthen nightly patrols of the city's hottest blocks.

"Chiraq" is not just a documentary but a mythical-geographical concept, which has produced a glut of sensational b-roll and somber essay perspective, enough to make a hometown observer cringe. "Chiraq isn't Chicago," local reporter Mason Johnson wrote, "but some very specific neighborhoods in Chicago where youth are disproportionately murdered when compared to other areas." It's true. Chicago is not Iraq, and no one's ducking IED shrapnel up in Winnetka.

And just as Chicago isn't all strife, Chicago rap isn't all drill. The city's been turning out great rappers for years: Common (now into his third decade rapping), Twista, Do or Die, Lupe Fiasco, Rhymefest. Kanye West.

But those guys are Chicago, "Chi-Town," "Chi-City," etc. Chief Keef: he's Chiraq.

The Occupation of Chiraq

As early as 2007, drill pioneers King Louie and Pac Man were hustling CDs from the trunks of their cars to area high school parking lots. No record deals yet, but they had equipment and distribution, and an audience: mostly local teens who'd grown up on the Down South trap stylings of Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame.

The scene coalesced definitively under the tutelage of DJ Kenn, a young Japanese hip hop producer who'd ventured way astray—from Yamagata Prefecture to Woodlawn, where a middle-aged man named Keith Cozart encountered Kenn wandering down a street of Keef's "300 block," having just arrived from New York and yet to gain his bearings in Chicago. The Cozart family hosted Kenn for a stint, and he began laying beats for Keith's nephew, also named Keith.

Kenn produced young Cozart—now Chief Keef—in his earliest hit, "Bang," in 2011. The low-budget video treatment from drill's signature cinematographer, DGainz, boasted more than 400,000 YouTube views by the end of the year, nearly eight million now. In June 2012, Interscope offered Chief Keef, then 17, a $400,000 advance and a three-album distribution contract worth as much as six million dollars.

A few months later, he was mocking a dead rival on Twitter, and Lupe Fiasco was warning in interviews that Chief Keef "scares" him, and that the South Side's handgun diplomacy is terrifying beyond all hype.

The Occupation of Chiraq

We've staged this drama before. America is now a quarter-century past N.W.A's block-incinerating debut, Straight Outta Compton, which threw Congress, the press, and an unlikely consensus of activists info a fit of concern-trolling. Gangsta rap was the end of the world, until it wasn't. Ice Cube, once the scariest black kid in America, grew up. His family comedies sound great streamed over his old friend Dr. Dre's $320 headphones.

When Ice Cube opened figurative fire on the Korean shopkeepers of South Central L.A., Source editor James Bernard agonized over the critic's dual loyalties to art, on the one hand, but also to humanity: "I'm not arrogant enough to wag my finger at someone for stridency or incorrect language when many of his friends are dead and many of the rest are either in prison or standing on the corner surrounded by burned-out and dying dreams."

But the media ecosystem that publicized and vilified N.W.A in 1988 is a backyard pond compared to the thick viral swamp that Chief Keef, King Louie, Lil Durk, Lil Reese, and Fredo Santana have traversed from their parents and guardians' basements. Last year, Chief Keef was broadcasting from house arrest in Englewood, where he spit his verse for Kanye West's posse remix of Keef's breakout hit—and drill manifesto—"I Don't Like."

(To the website's credit, Noisey lately reads as aware that hype coverage of Chicago's drill scene risks glamorizing grim spectacle and trivializing a city's too-common traumas.)

David Drake—a Chicago native and exhaustive drill correspondent—lays a case for hip hop media's ideal considerations in covering gangsta rap, including drill. "On the one hand, rap music isn't a solution to anything. On the other, it is a way to draw attention that will raise awareness outside the film festival circuit of well-meaning liberals. A documentary published on WorldStar hip-hop is trying to speak to a broader audience. But it's a precarious balance. The press gave us—meaning literally everyone—a chance to do something."

That's an aspiration shared by a few drill artists, including Lil Durk and Sasha Go Hard. Mikkey Halsted, a local rap veteran who grew up in the South Side's "Wild 100s," warns that however gruesome the music gets, "This story needs to be told."

Though more so a conscious street emcee himself, Halsted's recent tutelage of Lil Herb, a second-wave drill upstart, is a manifestation of confidence in drill's eventual evolution—that at least a few lasting talents will terrify the shit out of us with greater care, and to more productive affect. Drill, he says, "is a cry for help." Stressing that "there's people that have done two, three tours in Iraq" that haven't lost as many friends as some of the teen drill acts that Halsted has worked with and mentored. "These kids have PTSD for real."

The Field's final narrative stretch features veteran Chicago rapper and Kanye affiliate Rhymefest surfacing as an after-school mentor of teens seeking peaceful routes out of the projects. A few of the pupils rap. When one young man freestyles for the camera, the footage cuts him off and pivots to Rhymefest's scolding the high school senior for the massacre gist of his lyrics:

Your mama and your daddy died when you were young. Your brother just died, right? I ain't heard that story. That's your most profound rap, sitting inside of you — and you're talking about killing somebody else.

Gangsta rap didn't birth urban violence. A thousand well-meaning verses from conscious rappers like Lupe Fiasco won't end it. Bill O'Reilly is vigorously convinced that hip hop incubates "the fundamental disease" of urban poverty. The old man hears "bang, bang!" and shudders. But when Jordan Davis and his three friends were bumping Lil Reese's "Beef" in a Jacksonville gas station lot, it was a self-righteous white suburbanite who gunned down a black teen, not the other way around.

Noisey, for its part, rounds off Chiraq with an extended sequence of Chief Keef dicking around, revving tall on his luxury dirtbike, bucking laps and zags through a fenceless backyard that barely contains him. "Fuck them cameras, man, I'm done!" he yells. "Fuck everybody!"

Morton and the cameras leave Chief Keef and his caravan in the driveway of a friend's new cul-de-sac mansion in suburban Chicago, miles removed from the rapper's childhood turf at the South Side corner of 64th and Normal.

A mansion not all that much different from the one where, on Tuesday night, Keef posed with an arsenal for an Instagram spread. A mansion like the one where Northfield police say a shooting took place.

Last year, in a New York Times column that lauded Compton, L.A., rapper Kendrick Lamar's relatively uplifting escapism, Ta-Nehisi Coates explained gangsta rap's vantage:

Rappers generally depict themselves as masters, not victims, of the attending violence. Their music is not so much interested in exalting to our preferred values as constructing a fantasy wherein the author has total control and is utterly invulnerable.

That's the illusion, at least. But at the end of his song, Lil Jojo is dead. So is Jordan Davis, murdered by a man with the only sort of power that matters. "Your Honor," croaked the defendant, Michael Dunn, "I was fighting for my life." Whereas Keith "Keef" Cozart thrashes inevitably toward his own gruesome demise. Whereas Joseph "Jojo" Coleman rode a cracked avenue and fell helpless unto death, and we fought only for a glimpse.

[Image by Jim Cooke, source photo via Shutterstock]