Chief Keef has always been the breakout star of the GBE clique, but not far behind is his longtime righthand Lil Reese. Reesie has been popping up on Keef’s tracks for over a year, and when Keef needed a third verse for what would be his biggest hit to date “I Don’t Like,” he tossed the alley straight to Reese to produce the most controversial rap song of the year. He even got a remix of his own when Rick Ross and Drake laid verses over his Def Jam debut single “Us.” Reese distills even further Keef’s minimalist verses, stripping his menace down to the bone marrow. His song titles are all one word, mostly one syllable—“Beef,” “Us” “Savage.” Compared to Keef’s veiling dreads and Fredo’s piercing smoked-out gaze, Reese looks soft, the least likely to have that thang on him. He’s the pretty boy of the crew–the Juelz Santana to Keef’s Cam–often letting a smirk or two slide during his verses. His strongest track is “Traffic”: a pulsing manifesto anchored by the promise “we ain’t really with that talkin, bitch we bout that action.” The video production is worlds ahead of the stripped down visuals for “Bang” and “I Don’t Like” that got Keef signed—in “Traffic,” Keef and Reese speed around Englewood in a white Jag fresh from the dealership. The bitches are badder, the fits are crispier, and even Twista pops up for an “I’m still in these Chitown streets” look. But even crazier than the track itself are the lyrics’ foreshadowing of events that would follow just a few weeks later.
“He not bout that life, man catch him in traffic,” Reese threatens repeatedly, a few weeks before rival rapper Lil Jojo confronted him outside his home with a camera: the two taunted each other from passenger seats, in traffic. Eventually, Jojo was shot from a vehicle while riding his bike through the street in Reese’s neighborhood. Later in the track, Keef spits “pistols get to clappin, niggas get to laughin.” Soon, he’d set off a firestorm of debate after tweeting “LMAO” when news broke that Lil Jojo had been shot. Jojo had tweets of his own, though, provoking the gridlock when he tweeted “Just Caught @LilReese300 N Traffic His Daddy tryna talk It Out #NoTalkin #Bricksquad.” Rappers have been getting caught slipping at the light since Big and Pac, but the fierce reality of Jojo’s death is magnified when considering “Traffic.” In one of his earliest interviews, Keef commented that he’d “rather just say what’s going on right now. Real talk, you know? Like, what’s going on.” There was no mythologizing Jojo’s death with illuminati theories or crooked record execs or a conflict over a girl: it was flat and transparent. He talked shit about Reese and the Black Disciples, and then he got killed. The incident represents a new era of gang violence in inner cities, where social media and D.I.Y videos are the new red or blue bandana, and hashtags are more lethal than hand gestures.
The running joke in gangsta rap’s golden age was the “studio thug.” All across the early 2000s, 50 Cent and Jadakiss and Ja Rule and Cam’ron and Fat Joe and Nas and Jay-Z all took turns accusing each other of talking all that shit in the booth but never really being in these streets. 50 took the crown as Most Thuggish, and had the bullet wounds to prove it—now, he sells energy shots. Jay-Z once boasted of toting guns to the Grammy’s—now, he’s sprawled out on the hardwood of his new basketball stadium. And the self-professed God of Rap is squeaky clean Kanye West—the only Top Ten rapper that even kinda sorta talks about committing crimes anymore is Rick Ross, who’s background as a C.O. slapped a permanent “No Authenticity Required” sticker on gangsta rap’s jewel-case.
Since then, the country got used to what gangstas looked like on BET: brooding, flashy, violent, but still isolated, far away, and harmless. No matter how many cars and guns one crammed in their video, you could be sure there was a legally liable label on the other side of the camera. Nothing bad was actually going to happen. When 50 rhymed “I’ll ride by and blow your brains out,” it was a song before it was a threat, with a slick Dr. Dre beat constructed from pre-recorded gunshot sound effects. G-Unit wasn’t a gang, they were a record label (hilarious award show scuffles aside) And most significantly, as the rapper on television went from drug dealing murderer to avant-garde businessman, a digital revolution occurred that capsized the flow of content between, races, classes and cultures.
As hip-hop’s marketing and touring efforts shifted toward the sure money of corporate offices and college campuses, poor young black kids filled a void of relatable mainstream media with social media: WSHH exploded as the most-visited hip-hop website, Black Twitter controlled trending topics every night, facebook was flooded with ads selling Air Jordans. Instead of selling tapes out of car trunks, the entrepreneurial blasted datpiff links and promised #FOLLOWBACKS. This kind of web experience is inherently local, based around tight community circles where everyone pretty much knows each other (or at least of each other). Gangs and drug culture logged in as well: dopeboys have abandoned landmark corners and move weight over BBM, and crews plot on each other in broad-day over facebook. If someone got jumped, instead of telling your friends about it later, you filmed it and showed it to them. Thus, those homemade rap music videos aren’t just kids trying to get deals—they’re public service announcements, to be taken literally by those niggas from the other side of town. In this way, a track like Reese’s “Beef” is a threat before it’s a song. The hook is a war cry, a slogan, a commercial. “Traffic” didn’t ordain Jojo’s death, but it reveals that in their eyes it wasn’t remarkable, or surprising, or uncommon. It was what was “what’s going on right now. Real talk, you now? Like, what’s going on.”
This isn’t just happening in Chicago. Here in New York, the NYPD led major investigations on facebook and twitter, leading to a crackdown involving hyper-local Brownsville sets like Wave Gang and Hoodstarz that’d been warring for months. Later, members of Crown Height’s notorious Brower Gang were indicted in a series of home invasions. Both stories made the rounds through mainstream media with the air of an ironic feel-good piece: the NYPD was celebrated for catching the “morons” and “idiots” that bragged about their crimes on social media—some stories pointed to the celebratory rap cyphers that the crews posted as well. Folks just couldn’t understand why they’d ever post their crimes online. But one must imagine that if gang violence is occurring as openly as these tweets and videos suggest, than these are neighborhoods that cops aren’t bothering to come to in the first place. It’s easy to send a friend request; it’s scarier to walk a beat.
What social media promises to any user—a college kid, a gang member, a blogger, a rapper—is fame, notoriety, respect. Getting a bunch of views on the rap video you made with your crew carries the same social clout for a 17-year-old as getting a bunch of retweets on a clever joke or double-digit likes on a quality selfie. Social media has now, for the first time, removed the buffer between the evils of the inner city and the eyes of the curious public. Now, just like every other genre, there’s no need for a label to package and distribute gangsta rap. Keef, Reese, and his cohorts are so polarizing and so urgent because America has never seen anything like them. Rap fans are used to seeing an interpretation. Chief Keef is a fact. That’s why he and his crew continue to connect with people that have grown up in his isolated, far away world, whether record labels and magazines and the pillars of mainstream culture and commerce embrace him or not.
Imagine having to physically defend yourself every day. Not because of a rap song on the radio, but because when you step outside there will probably be someone waiting who wants to hurt you or take something from you. Your parents won’t protect you, your teachers can’t protect you, and the law doesn’t protect you. The only people that care enough about you to risk their well-being for yours are your best friends. So you never leave their side. You let other people know you’ll never leave their side by getting it tatted on your arm. You share your first drinks with them, you play pranks with them, you grow up with them. Try to imagine your best friend saving your life. On multiple occasions. These are the kinds of bonds that seem worth dying over, and in the worst cases, feel worth killing over. Chief Keef, Lil Reese, and the bloodshed in Chicago are the culmination of years of cultural abandonment and constant confrontation, and whether it’s difficult to stomach or not, they are what’s going on right now.