ARTICLE PHILLIP MLYNAR
PHOTOGRAPHY GRANT SINGER
STYLIST NATASHA NEWMAN-THOMAS
AT THE HELM OF HIP-HOP'S NEXT GEN, CHIEF KEEF AND KENDRICK LAMAR CLASH ON THE INDUSTRY'S HISTORY OF HYPING VIOLENCE
Lil JoJo is dead and Chief Keef is off the radar. Gunned down while riding on the back of a friend’s bicycle in the Englewood area of Chicago, Joseph “Lil JoJo” Coleman was an 18-year-old wannabe rapper who boasted of his connections to local gangs and posed for pictures grasping giant stacks of dollars and brandishing guns. When he found out that JoJo had been murdered, 17-year-old Chief Keef, aka Keith Cozart, made light of the incident on his Twitter account, writing, “Its Sad Cuz Dat Nigga Jojo Wanted to Be Jus Like Us #LMAO.” Chief Keef has been known to hashtag his tweets “300”—rumored to refer to the Black Disciples gang. His tweet was quickly deleted, and he claimed his account had been hacked, but nothing really vanishes on the Internet: at the writing of this (September), police are investigating whether JoJo’s shooting was gang-related and Chief Keef has gone to ground.
The scenario reads like just another case of inner-city black-on-black violence in the social media era. But there’s a difference: Chief Keef is hip-hop’s next superstar, signed to Interscope Records. By the end of the year, he’ll either be rich or in jail. The drama surrounding Chief Keef’s alleged role in Lil JoJo’s demise has created a media frenzy around him, but over in Compton, Los Angeles, his label-mate Kendrick Lamar is proving you can rise through the rap ranks without relying on a sensationalist story; their debut albums on the label will reveal two different perspectives on a similarly challenging upbringing.
When Kanye West announced he was recording a remix of Chief Keef’s song “I Don’t Like,” the rapper’s profile went ballistic, and in June he signed a deal with Interscope for an undisclosed amount. The song is typical of Chief Keef’s music: The beats are loud and abrasive, and the raps drip with unbridled testosterone and threats like “Pistol toting and I’m shooting on sight / A snitch nigga, that’s that shit I don’t like.” It’s visceral fight-club music, and what Chief Keef lacks in finesse he redresses with aggression. Post Kanye’s endorsement, “I Don’t Like” now has nearly 15 million YouTube views; the remix is close to topping 20 million.
A modern viral hit, “I Don’t Like” has its roots in felonious circumstances. At the time of recording, Chief Keef was under house arrest at his grandmother’s abode, convicted of aiming a gun at a cop. Interscope seems to embrace his nefarious upbringing: his biography brags about his status as a “legend among kids” on the South Side of Chicago, which is experiencing an “astonishing rise in murder rate.” Even before Lil JoJo’s shooting, Chief Keef was being molded as rap’s newest gangsta-shaped mainstream crossover—someone whose songs come from a violent and gritty upbringing and can be packaged to offer vicarious thrills to those in safer climes.
Pimping a rapper’s notorious backstory is a marketing technique record labels perfected long before Chief Keef was even born. Interscope are past masters of the trick, responsible for forging the careers of a succession of gangsta rap icons including N.W.A., Snoop Doggy Dogg, 2Pac, 50 Cent, and the Game. In each case, an egregious part of the artist’s life helped propel him to stardom: Snoop faced a murder trial during the release of his debut album; 50 Cent’s breakthrough was hooked around the revelation that he’d been shot nine times. By making fun of JoJo’s death, Chief Keef may have stumbled through the gateway to wild success, proving that violence remains as valid an avenue to success in the big-label rap game as ever.
Before there was Chief Keef and the South Side of Chicago, hip-hop had Compton. A repeat candidate for the title of America’s murder capital, the city’s drive-by shootings and Bloods-versus-Crips gang warfare were oft immortalized in song during the late ’80s, most memorably by the Dr. Dre–helmed N.W.A. Kendrick Lamar, now 25 years of age, is a hip-hop artist who grew up in Compton during that era. But he wasn’t willing to be defined by the gangsta cliché, he says, even if it was the road to quick riches.
Speaking from the House of Pain recording studio in Los Angeles, where he’s finishing up his debut Interscope album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Lamar describes his childhood as a “happy time.” His most harrowing experience went down at the intersection of Bradfield and Rosencrans avenues: “I remember playing basketball in the middle of the street and one of my homeboys getting hit by a car.” Then he pauses, lets out a small laugh, and adds, “He was alright, though.”
Yet the depiction of Compton in rap songs wasn’t far removed from Lamar’s experience. “The reality and everything N.W.A. talked about, that was real,” he says. “And my generation and the one before it, we only knew the bad influence.” Around the time of his 20th birthday he started to read up on the history of the area and began to “think about certain situations and why certain people act the way they do.”
What he discovered filtered through to his music, which settled into a blend of rapping in a voice authentic to Compton’s streets and speaking from a more worldly viewpoint. An early mixtape was discovered by local indie label Top Dawg Entertainment, who invited Lamar to their studio and asked him to “rhyme for two hours, so they could see if I could make tracks.” Further mixtapes followed, one including the song “Ignorance Is Bliss,” which made its way to the ears of Dr. Dre. Impressed by the song, Dre welcomed Lamar into his Aftermath stable of artists, completing the Compton circle of creative life.
The street has defined both Kendrick Lamar and Chief Keef, but whereas Lamar’s rise has involved unshackling himself from the negative side of Compton to find a role as the shining voice of a blighted city, Chief Keef has remained beholden to his roots. Since his disappearance in the aftermath of Lil JoJo’s shooting, requests to speak to the rapper (even through his attorney) have been fruitless. A representative from his label declined to comment when asked about his current situation. Tellingly, the only quote from Chief Keef in his bio reads, “I really don’t want everybody to know me—they gon’ like you more if they don’t know shit about you.” The less he says, the more his story intrigues, be it fictional or the truth.
Kendrick Lamar may have turned away from violence, but he recognizes the draw of a rapper’s dramatic life. Talking about the artists that made him want to start rapping, Lamar says, “It was D.M.X., 2Pac, and Jay-Z, ’cause of the backstory and where these people came from. It’s the same place I come from, and they still made a success of it.” 2Pac was murdered in 1996, D.M.X. has been in and out of jail throughout his career, and Jay-Z, whose drug-dealing street life is household knowledge in the both the suburbs and the projects, is now an exceptionally rich entrepreneur. Chief Keef’s next move might determine whose path he follows, but either way he’ll probably sell a lot of records.