Bang: The Launch of a 16-Year-Old Chicago Rapper — Leftovers

I wrote about Chief Keef for Gawker a week or so ago; my initial draft had been considerably longer than space would allow — this was a very rich story, with a lot of different angles that I wish I could have gone into in more detail. There were definitely some ideas and quotes that I thought readers might find interesting, as well.

I’ll be answering some questions that piled up on the somanyshrimp tumblr after I publish this, so if you are curious about this story, feel free to ask through tumblr.

On DJ Kenn’s early influences and arrival in Chicago:

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 discovered hip-hop as a teenager living in Japan, and became a big fan of Dr. Dre, Nas and Cam’ron. (“[Stillmatic and Come Home With Me] are classics to me,” Kenn said when asked about his favorite performers. “I used to listen to those every day.”) When he turned 18, around 2005, Kenn moved to Tokyo, and within two years followed a friend to New York City. “I always looked up to him,” he explained. “He was doing music with people [in the U.S.]. I was like, I want to do music like him.” The United States completely changed Kenn’s perceptions of hip-hop. “Right here, everything is life-sized,” Kenn said in a thick accent. “Radio, parties, or even clothes, anything. This is real. In Japan, it’s different. 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 just spend a year in the United States, but within ten months of moving to New York, he flew instead to Chicago. He spoke little-to-no English, and knew no one in the city; he just knew he wanted to make music. He was wandering through Woodlawn, near 60th and Indiana, when a man discovered him and found him a place to stay. His name was Keith, and he was Chief Keef’s uncle. “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 impressions of 11-year-old Chief Keef

“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. Even how he talks, how he acts, how to rap [sic]. He was only 11 years old but he was different than everybody. How he talk, how he’s thinking …. [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.”

Breaking into the High School audience; the influence of DGainz; shooting the video for “BANG”:

“We used to pay attention to what Bump was doing. They was out hardcore in the streets.” In 2006 and 2007, Doe and Louie used to burn CDs and distribute them by hand: “Schools, bus stops, El stations, parties we would go to.” One of Louie’s earliest tracks became famous throughout the network of East Side High Schools when the star rapped about all the girls he had slept with, naming names. Lyrics and catchphrases could spread like viruses; Doe quotes a particular King Louie lyric. “You could walk up to anybody on the South Side this summer, ‘roll up the dope–‘ [they respond] ‘where the bitches at.’” He continued: “There are so many schools on the East Side. 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. And the East Side has been at the forefront of that movement for a long time.”

King Louie’s rise coincided with the arrival of Duan Gaines, a hip-hop producer and pioneering street cinematographer who goes by the name DGainz. “I was working with my little cousin, producing and writing for him. The songs were nice songs, everybody liked them. I said, we need some visuals to them. So I bought a camera and it came natural.” DGainz is a humble 23-year-old, untrained in cinematography. He’s also the driving force behind Chicago’s underground street-rap scene as it’s made its way to the Internet for the very first time. His success was rapid and influential, and much of it occurred in the past year.

DGainz received a big boost when he was contacted by Louie this past summer. Louie had become the South Side’s biggest local star. Once DGainz dropped a dark, cinematic visual for Louie’s “Gumbo Mobsters,” the floodgates opened, and artists from across the city wanted a DGainz video. One of these artists was Chief Keef, who contacted DGainz directly through facebook.

They met at A.O.N. studios, which was located in an apartment and run by DJ Kenn. The video to “Bang” was shot in 30 minutes in the backyard of the studio. “I just wanted to give it the look that it sounded [like]. It had a grimy sound to it,” said Gaines. By the time Keef’s Bang mixtape was released in early October, the video for the title track had 70,000 views. By New Years Eve, that number would surpass 400,000, largely, according to YouTube statistics, through mobile views; kids were watching the videos on their phones. It had become the runaway hit of DGainz already-impressive videography.

Katie Got Bandz on her goals as an artist:

Katie Got Bandz, whose “I Need A Hitta” has in the area of 95,000 views to date, has been performing at dance halls, clubs and sweet sixteen parties since her track took off earlier this summer. Shot by Citi Boi Skills, another of the street cinematographers to rise in the wake of DGainz increased notoriety, the track made Katie — whose real name is Kiara Johnson — a local celebrity. She says she first noticed that her song was taking off when she started getting negative feedback. Like many of the artists behind these videos, there was no calculation to her success; her motivation to pursue a more serious career came from the sudden fanbase that urged her to keep recording. “I don’t really care about the fame or the recognition,” she says earnestly. “I want people to respect me for who I am, not for where I’m going, or just for the work people know me by.”

I spoke with a high school teacher who observed these artists popularity firsthand:

Lydia Merrill, a high school art teacher whose former students included both Katie Got Bandz and Sasha Gohard, could see the artists’ success firsthand. She first heard about Chief Keef through her students, prior to his appearance on WorldStar. She knew a few of her students were aspiring rappers, but it wasn’t until students started inquiring about a particular self-portrait hung on her classroom wall that she realized how big they had become. “Students were always asking me if that was ‘Sasha,’ and I would correct them saying, ‘no, it’s one of my former students, Yaniesha.’ Until one day someone told me about all the videos.”

On violence in the communities:

Alex Riley argued that this was simply the lifestyle of kids in the area: “Honestly, from where I grew up, and a lot of kids my age growing up, they have guns. Kids keep guns on them because they’ve got to protect themselves. And these kids be bad as hell, they do a lot of bad shit, so they can relate to what he’s saying. And ALL of them smoke loud. I’d say every kid born ’92, ’93, all the way up, only smokes loud weed. So everything he’s saying, they can relate to. That’s why they’re so attracted to it.”

Big Homie Doe echoed this sentiment. “It’s sad to say, but that’s what happens. That’s what goes on. A lot of these kids—people like me, Louie, Keef—grew up around situations like that. It’s sort of what people know. It’s not like people [are] looking on the TV and emulating anything. A lot of the gangster shit and all that started in Chicago, dating back to the Al Capone days. It’s deep-rooted here in Chicago. Even all our politicians are locked up. It’s something sort of in the water and especially in the blood of people here….Because if you’re there with them yourself, and be around [these neighborhoods], you’ll see what’s going on. And you’ll talk about the same things, too.”

Chief Keef on rap style:

“See, motherfuckers think I can’t do metaphors and ain’t about metaphors and punchlines. They–” he gestured at a fanbase, outside the apartment, “don’t want to see me do that. I don’t sit down and ‘think,’ I write about what’s going on right now, what we just did, what just happened. That’s what I write about. I don’t be trying so hard. I used to, ask him–” he points at DJ Kenn. “He told me to stop! Kenn was the reason. He said, ‘stop saying so much.’ That’s why I got comfortable and started–” he’s interrupted suddenly by someone knocking at his door; he signals them through the window, banging a vase against it to get their attention.

Chief Keef gets into rapping:

Keef grew up in Woodlawn, just a few blocks east of his grandmother’s residence. He attended Dulles Elementary at 63rd and King Drive, and all the people in his videos are people he’s known since he was young. His grandmother is a school bus driver; his mother still lives in the neighborhood. (“Fuck my dad,” Keef said brusquely; Keef has a daughter of his own now). Keef was raised on hip-hop; he remembers first hearing Beanie Sigel and G-Unit, and his earliest memories of rapping were into an old karaoke machine when he was around nine years of age. “Little-ass kids, about ‘05, ‘04. We used to freestyle, I used to be so cold, even when I was a little shorty. I used to be freestyling raw as hell! See now my brain’s fucked up from smoking so much loud, but I was raw! We had the blank tapes, put ‘em in there, got the little mic, got the beat playing, the weak-ass beats and shit. Called ourselves Total Domination.”

Chief Keef on his favorite rappers:

Since his sudden national breakthrough, Keef’s found some allies in unexpected quarters. In addition to avant-weirdo Lil B’s appearance on the “Bang” remix, critically-acclaimed rapper Danny Brown showed some enthusiasm for Keef recently on Twitter. But Keef’s hip-hop aspirations are well within hip-hop’s mainstream. “Gucci, Soulja, Future, Tity Boi, Young Jeezy, Yo Gotti. That’s about it,” he says about his favorite artists, before adding that in Chicago, all he sees is King Louie and his friends from the neighborhood. Later on, he raps the hook to Fat Trel’s “Respect with the Tec,” a song from another young, rising artist. Trel became a breakout street rapper last year, in part thanks to his own singular visual presence on YouTube.

DJ Kenn on being an outsider from Japan:

“To keep it real, it made me realize this is a whole other country, this is not Japan. And–I cannot speak [well]–it made me change a lot. Sometimes it was too bad. I used to think you can trust anybody, I was trying to be positive to everybody. It made me think, you can’t trust nobody. But at the same time, good friends are good friends for real. No matter what. It made me strong.”

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