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Chief Keef, Lollapalooza, 2012. Credit: Swimfinfan

City to Rapper: Drop Dead

This summer’s ongoing war between Chief Keef and Rahm Emanuel is as much about urban history as holograms.

Last month, Chief Keef tweeted that his hologram would be making a surprise appearance at Lincoln Hall, a club that’s on a bougie stretch of Lincoln Park, catty-corner from Chicago’s alabaster factory of frat boys, DePaul University.

Upon arriving at Lincoln Hall, I realized that the show was not going to happen: that day, Lincoln Hall’s stretch of Lincoln Avenue was home to a street festival. The street outside the venue was milling with yuppies watching what seemed to be Pearl Jam cover bands. Face-painted kids ran around clutching corn dogs. Every adult seemed to be several warm beers in. I seemed to be the only person who had seen Keef’s tweet, or taken it seriously; there was no line outside the venue. Several Lincoln Hall employees I spoke to had no idea about any Chief Keef show. “Why are you telling me about this Chief person?” one of them asked. Fitting, since Clap Your Hands Say Yeah was already booked for that night.

Eventually, Lincoln Hall tweeted that there was no Chief Keef show.

 

Chief Keef’s ascent was almost instantaneous. In January 2012, a World Star Hip Hop video of a young kid freaking out because Chief Keef was a free man after 60 days of house arrest went viral. Keef’s first underground mixtape, Mulah Express, dropped just a year and a half before, to little fanfare. But by the end of 2012, he had lengthy profiles in Gawker, the Fader, and Complex, been remixed by Kanye West, signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Interscope Records, violated his parole by holding a gun in an interview with Pitchfork, been investigated by the police after a rival South Side rapper was gunned down, been kicked off from Instagram for posting a shot of himself getting a blowjob, left 50 Cent and Wiz Khalifa waiting in the desert for hours for a music-video shoot that never happened, beefed with Rhymefest and Lupe Fiasco, released four mixtapes and an album, and turned 17. Noisey, VICE’s music blog, called summer 2012 “The Summer of Chief Keef.” (What did you do?)

By the end of 2014, though, Keef was suffering the effects of being a child star. He got evicted from his mansion in the tony Chicago North Shore suburb of Highland Park. Then Interscope dropped him. All the while, he bounced in and out of jail and rehab. “Even though he’s a kid and a lot of people on the outside looking in say, ‘Oh, his management team doesn’t know what they’re doing,’” his manager told Complex in 2012, “but these kids, this shit is like fuckin’ Lord of the Flies. Like fuckin’ Lost Boys for real.”

After 2013’s successful release of his debut album, Finally Rich, he released a long string of mixtapes of varying quality. He admitted as much himself, telling Billboard in February 2014, “My last two mixtapes [Almighty So and Bang 2] were mistakes. I was on promethazine, all drugged out. I was tweaking. I don’t sip the lean no more though.” (He apparently returned to sipping lean within weeks.)

On July 11 of this year, Capo, a member of Keef’s Glo Gang crew, was shot in a drive-by in broad daylight on Chicago’s Southeast Side and died hours later in a downtown hospital. His alleged shooter, fleeing police, lost control of his car and drove directly into a stroller holding an infant at an intersection, dragging it behind him. The 13-month-old, Dillan Harris, was killed. Just nine days prior to these tragedies, “Ain’t Missing You,” Keef’s country-tinged ode to his cousin Big Glo, who was killed in 2014, was released. He announced in the wake of the deaths that he planned to play a free benefit concert two days later, titled “Stop the Violence,” in Chicago to fundraise for the families of both Dillan Harris and Capo. The catch: Keef can’t enter Chicago, for fear of being arrested on a 2014 warrant stemming from not paying child support.

Keef’s solution, with the help of Alki David, a Greek billionaire-by-inheritance who is the head of Keef’s new label, MondoTunes, was to appear in Chicago via hologram; he announced a show at the Redmoon Theater. (You may remember the infamous Tupac Coachella hologram incident of 2012, or the planned Amy Winehouse hologram concert series; another one of David’s companies, HologramUSA, was responsible for both.) David told Noisey, “You watch: Chief Keef is going to become the hologram hip-hop guy.” Already, the plan sounded dubious; it was already the weekend of the Pitchfork Music Festival, and it was reported that the show would have a $50 minimum required donation. Who would pay that much to see a hologram of Chief Keef at such short notice, especially considering that most music fans in the city would be at the Pitchfork after-shows? Whether or not anyone would come ended up being a null issue, since Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office asked the venue to cancel the show, which it promptly did. Kelly Quinn, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, told the Chicago Sun-Times that Keef is “an unacceptable role model.” It is unclear why Rahm, a former investment banker from Chicago’s North Shore suburbs, decided to take it upon himself in this one specific case to moralize art that citizens on the South Side make for other citizens of the South Side. As Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg noted, Chicago mayors have a long history of censorship, from Martin Kennelly banning Sarte’s The Respectful Prostitute to Richard J. Daley’s family having Mike Royko’s Boss yanked from shelves.

 

By the time I boarded a bus home from Lincoln Park, word had already gotten out on Twitter that Keef’s hologram would be performing at Craze Fest, an all-day hip-hop festival in Hammond, Ind., about 10 minutes across the state line from Chicago, later that night.

FilmOn, a streaming website owned by David, which for a week had a “Chief Keef Live” channel on its homepage that played old videos of Keef and his friends on little motor scooters, started broadcasting live from Hammond. As I watched the Livestream on the bus, Riff Raff and Lil Bibby finished their sets, then two young female hosts made their way through the crowd in Hammond, asking clearly wasted audience members if they’d heard the “rumor” that Chief Keef would be playing. One of the hosts, who was white, spent most of the night walking up to black men and asking things like, “If I was gonna be in a gang, what gang would I be in?” and “Are you two violent men?” At two different points she went up to random audience members who had short dreadlocks and told them, excitedly, “You have Chief Keef hair!” She was so excited the first time that she rubbed both of her hands through his hair for an uncomfortably long time without asking.

But! A Chief Keef hologram appeared, hovering above the stage. “Stop the killing, stop the violence, stop the nonsense. Let the kids grow up,” Keef said, before launching—well, standing in place and lip-synching—into his biggest hit, “I Don’t Like.” Three minutes into the song, Hammond police, who had told Craze Fest organizers that they would shut the show down if Keef’s hologram popped up, did just that. Apparently, organizers had told Hammond’s mayor that Chance the Rapper would be the surprise guest of the evening. The mayor, who professed to know nothing about Chief Keef, later told the Northwest Indiana Post-Tribune, “I’ve heard he promotes violence, and I don’t want that for our city and our officers.” He continued to the New York Times, “He’s been basically outlawed in Chicago, and we’re not going to let you circumvent Mayor Emanuel by going next door.”

First Amendment scholar and Washington Post blogger Eugene Volokh wrote, “This is a pretty clear First Amendment violation on the part of the City of Hammond. And it seems to me that, in America, performances by controversial singers can’t be ‘basically outlawed,’ even ‘in Chicago.’” But Keef had already moved on from First Amendment arguments. He spent the next week baiting Emanuel, saying that he was going to run for mayor of Chicago and telling Billboard, “They don’t want to see a young black man be successful and do something good.… If you ask me, man, fuck the mayor with a sandpaper dick!”

This is not the first time the city has intervened in a Chief Keef concert explicitly meant to prevent Chicagoans from killing each other, either. A little over a year ago, Chicago police prevented Keef from playing a show called “Put the Guns Down,” for fear of “chaos and violence.” Though it was not violence from Keef himself police were worried about; earlier in the week, rumors circulated that there was a $100,000 bounty on Keef’s head.

 

In a move emblematic of many major cities in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, Chicago built thousands of public housing units in towers concentrated in largely working-class black neighborhoods. As other neighborhoods around the city gentrified and the ones full of these towers did not, jobs dried up and organized crime took over. Photographer Patricia Evans recalled to NPR, “There were about 20, 25 blocks of housing all packed together. Everything around public housing had vanished … as [it] became more and more concentrated, and poorer and poorer.”

In the 1990s, the city began tearing the towers down, with promises to relocate all of the residents. In 2011, the Chicago Housing Authority commissioned a report that found that only 56 percent of the residents it had promised to relocate had stayed in the system. “Everything they told us, they reneged on,” a former resident told NPR.

Drill, Chief Keef and co.’s hyper-regional style of rap, was launched in the Dro City section of Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, after the CHA tore down public housing towers that centrally located gang members, spreading chaos and violence throughout the South Side. Of all the various regional movements in hip-hop, drill is the most viscerally influenced by what happens when a city run by powerful, corrupt, mostly white men abandons its poor black neighborhoods. The other hip-hop renaissance movement in Chicago, spearheaded by Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa’s Savemoney crew, descends from earlier Kanye and Common, Chicago house music, gospel, blues, and funk. It’s some of the best, most exciting music being made anywhere, and incredibly specific to Chicago. It is evidently the music Rahm Emanuel would rather represent Chicago; drill is a droning, incessant “fuck you” to the white power structure in downtown and the North Side that enforces the system that keeps poor, violent neighborhoods on the South Side poor and violent.

Drill is the sound of the most segregated city in America. Drill is the sound of the system doing everything it can to keep it that way.

Meanwhile, Keef’s joking Twitter taunts about running for Mayor of Chicago have lead to headlines like this, on the Daily Beast: “Chief Keef: Chicago’s Mayoral Candidate From Hell.” The story, like so many others about Keef and rappers in general, characterized his music as a “call to violence,” continuing in a grand tradition of white tabloid conservatism including, most recently, a segment on Fox News’ inane roundtable show The Five in which the hosts accused Kendrick Lamar of “inciting violence” for noting, in the lyrics to “Alright,” that American police seem to kill a lot of black people.

Keef has never made a secret of his affiliation to the 300 set of the Black Disciples, a faction of one of the largest of some 60 local gangs, but in many of the South Side neighborhoods that gang members flocked to after the public housing towers were torn down, gang affiliation is not a choice. Keef reps O Block, or the 6400 block of South Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. Last year the Sun-Times called it the “most dangerous block” in the city. But it hasn’t been that way forever; it was only just named “O Block” in 2011. In 2007, after Mayor Richard M. Daley razed the Randolph Towers public housing projects, most of the gang member residents flocked to Parkway Gardens, a privately owned apartment complex that runs along O Block.

In March, the Huffington Post reported that the Chicago Housing Authority, under Rahm Emanuel, has been “pulling hundreds of millions of dollars from a fund earmarked for its affordable housing program and using the money instead to boost its pension, purchase government debt and build up a staggering cash reserve.” The Post continued, “Under Emanuel, the CHA has become as much an investment fund as a housing agency.”

“With a lot of the drill music, there’s no real separation between the street and the art in the music,” Sickamore, a Def Jam A&R man charged with handling Lil Durk, another drill star, told this magazine in 2013. “They go to the studio, but they’re just as much in the mix as any one of these kids out here, so that’s why I think the other kids see that and can relate.” Nas told the Sun-Times last year, “People can get mad all they want, but the streets make people respond. Had it not been for [Keef and others], most of the world would not know what’s going on because the media doesn’t care like they care about other stuff. So, we have to say what’s going on.”

Drill is the sound of the city tearing down the homes of thousands of people and having no real plan on where or how to relocate them. Drill is the sound of 50 public schools on the South and West Sides being shut down in one fell swoop. Drill is the sound of waiting for the Red Line El train on the South Side, where it runs down the middle of the highway so riders at the platform are constantly being deafened, as opposed to the Red Line on the North Side, which runs through neighborhoods. Drill is the sound of the most segregated city in America. Drill is the sound of the system doing everything it can to keep it that way.

 

Keef and David have announced they’re going to try a third run at the hologram show in September, this time broadcasting to venues in Chicago, New York, and LA. (Madison Square Garden and the Chicago Theatre, both of which were named by Keef’s camp, quickly denied having any involvement.) It’s not hard to see how we have arrived at the situation we’re currently in, with fake Chief Keef concerts being shut down within five minutes of fake starting and venues sprinting the other way: A young person becomes instantly rich and spirals out of control in public view. It’s also not hard to see that it’s often not the young person’s fault. In a 2012 interview, Atlanta producer DJ Drama noted that national success sometimes comes to those unprepared for it. “[Now-dissolved groups Dem Franchise Boyz and Shop Boyz] were making songs to try to get played at [Atlanta strip clubs] Crucial and the Poole Palace, and they ended up on Billboard,” he said. Both groups dissolved shortly after one or two songs blew up. Keef has been rapping since he was five and his main distribution method was, at first, YouTube videos and burned CDs shared by South and East Side Chicago public school students. It’s not as if he posted the video of his young fan to World Star Hip Hop.

Chief Keef’s career could go anywhere from here. He is drill’s first and biggest superstar, and there aren’t many career paths for him to look to to follow. There is space in the hip-hop landscape for Keef, whose largely self-produced recent releases have become less violent and more experimental; trap, drill’s larger, more flamboyant older brother out of Atlanta, has trended much more abstract, emphasizing wordplay (Migos) and all-out oddness (Young Thug). But there is no beaten career path for him. It’s not even clear if he’ll end up staying in music. “What you have to understand about these guys is that they’re not in it for the same reasons as a lot of other artists,” Keef’s manager told LA Weekly after he was dropped by Interscope. “A lot of people get into it to be a part of their idols, to meet them, and to make music in the game they love. For these guys that stuff is all secondary. For them, music is just another lick.” It is easy to forget that Chief Keef just turned 20.