“You gotta separate yourself,” Durk continues. “I’ve separated myself from all that Keef stuff, so if something does happen, they can say, ‘Durk ain’t got nothin’ to do with that.’ Police involved now; they try to solve murders, saying it’s rap beefs fueling the murders. We got to watch what we say.” He pauses and smiles. “Keef says his next mixtape, Bang 3, is gonna raise the murder rate. What the fuck is that? Police could snatch him up. That’s why I don’t be on Twitter talking. Hell naw. Police watching.”
Durk’s swipe comes as a surprise after a Twitter altercation this summer, when Keef accused him of disloyalty to their Only the Family crew. “Wat happen to OTF?” Keef tweeted. “U aint rockin wit it?” By the end of the summer, Durk told radio personality Sway he’d squashed it. But here the rivalry seems far from dead. Such is hip-hop in the online era, running at the speed of a stock ticker.
In fact, after Durk lamented Keef’s online blundering, one of his own associates, a young rapper named Clint “Rondo” Massey, posted pictures of himself on Instagram that led the Chicago Police Department to issue a bulletin warning that Rondo may be “in possession of a rocket launcher.”
Even from a thousand miles away, they find themselves tangled with the law. Reese became the center of a Florida stand-your-ground case this February when an African American teenager was fatally shot by a 47-year-old white man, who defended his actions by saying the teen had been blasting thug music—Lil Reese’s “Beef.”
Run-ins with the law are a constant among the Chicago hip-hop scene’s upper ranks, whether it’s Durk doing time in an Illinois jail on a gun charge or police clocking Keef at 110 miles an hour in his BMW one early morning in May 2013.
The most dramatic may be a 2012 incident involving Reese, Durk and a rapper named Joseph “Lil JoJo” Coleman. It began with a confrontation at a suburban nightclub between Reese and Durk, who are alleged Black Disciples members, and JoJo, a member of the rival Gangster Disciples. Soon after, JoJo released a taunting video called “Tied Up,” featuring a Keef look-alike bound in duct tape. A follow-up video arrived called “3Hunna K,” a death threat directed at Keef’s 300 crew. In the video, then 18-year-old JoJo and his affiliates point automatic weapons at the camera. “I can’t wait to catch ’em,” JoJo warns. “This is not a diss song. Just a message.”
On September 4 of that year, JoJo posted a YouTube video with the caption “Caught Lil Reese in traffic again.” In the video JoJo taunts Reese from a passing car, shouting, “Why you a bitch, boy?” Offscreen a man shouts, “I’ma kill you!” JoJo tweeted, “Im On #069 Im Out Here” soon after.
That night JoJo was gunned down while riding a bicycle near 69th Street and Princeton Avenue. His murder remains unsolved. Keef raised public suspicion of 300’s involvement with a tweet: “Its Sad Cuz Dat Nigga Jojo Wanted to Be Jus Like Us #LMAO.” He claims his account was hacked and he never posted the message.
The video of Reese beating a young woman surfaced the following month. The series of events contributed to, as music critic Tom Breihan put it, “Chicago teenage-nihilist-rap fatigue” among fans like him.
Indeed, Chicago hip-hop’s biggest boosters appeared to be rethinking their support for the scene. Pitchfork Media pulled a video featuring Keef rhyming at a shooting range, which earned him a probation violation. “Pitchfork’s roots are in Chicago,” the editor-in-chief wrote. “The gun violence that has plagued our hometown is something we all take very seriously. Many people have pointed out that this episode could be seen as trivializing gun violence, and we feel they have a good point.” It was a decided tempering of the breathless excitement from Pitchfork and other critics that had helped propel Chicago MCs to fame in the first place.
Even with a body count, the conflicts between Chicago rappers would likely be seen as little more than a continuation of hip-hop’s long tradition of violence. But the rise of Chicago hip-hop coincided with some of the most high-profile homicides in the history of the city, earning it the blood-soaked nickname Chiraq. In January 2013, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was gunned down on the South Side by gang members who mistook her for a rival. Chicagoan Barack Obama mourned her death, saying, “What happened to Hadiya is not unique to Chicago. Too many of our children are being taken away from us.” Michelle Obama proclaimed, “Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her.” The gruesome murder arrived after a mind-numbing spate of violence: Five months earlier, eight Chicago residents were shot during a nine-hour stretch in a 16-square-block neighborhood nicknamed Terror Town. In this same period a total of 19 Chicagoans were shot citywide.
Despite the nicknames, Chicago’s murder rate has declined from its 1990s peak, when an average of 900 were slain each year. There were 415 murders in 2013. “People don’t talk about the fact that homicides are down,” says Daniel Hertz, a master’s student at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago who runs the blog City Notes. “Most say, ‘I’m not sure I believe you.’”
Hertz emphasizes, however, that the past two decades have wreaked havoc on certain South Side neighborhoods. “The great crime decline is a fickle thing,” he says. “The North Side saw huge decreases, but most of the rest actually got worse, including some neighborhoods that were already among the most dangerous in the city. This is a complicated state of affairs and explains why, in the face of a 50 percent decrease in homicides citywide over the past two decades, many believe the opposite is true, because in their neighborhood it is.” In Chicago’s eighth police district, on the South Side, Hertz points out, the murder rate has climbed 48 percent since the 1990s.
Criminologists have yet to get their heads around this, but there are a few theories. Ask MC Katie Got Bandz about the neighborhood she calls home, and her answer will echo that of her peers: “It’s gone, but I’m still from there.”
Katie grew up in Bronzeville’s Ida B. Wells public housing development, which was demolished from 2002 to 2011. Merk Murphy called the Cabrini-Green housing projects home until they came down in 2011 after a decade of demolitions. Lil Durk hails from 65th and South Normal, near the Parkway Gardens project, acquired in 2011 by Wells Fargo and real estate giant Related Companies. “Our projects are gone,” Durk says. “Everybody split up into the neighborhoods.”
Chicago’s gangs have splintered in response. While the city is home to long-established outfits such as the Vice Lords, the Gangster Disciples and the Black Disciples, these organizations have seen their upper ranks decimated by state, local and federal law enforcement, resulting in splinter or faction crews. According to police, Durk belongs to a Black Disciples faction named Lamron, or Normal spelled backward, a tribute to his roots on South Normal Avenue.
“The old regime is gone,” Murphy says, “and a lot of these leaders are locked up for decades. It’s like what happens when a kid grows up without a father.” Lil Reese elaborates: “All my people in the feds right now. Ain’t no leaders out here. It’s kids moving up, trying to be leaders, and they ain’t doing it right.”
This leaderless gang scene has created countless subsets of the established crews, thus swelling gang membership. There are an estimated 100,000 gang members in Chicago spread among about 600 gang factions. The increased number of gangs has spiked violence in the neighborhoods where they operate. In 2012 Chicago police estimated that up to 80 percent of murders and shootings were gang-related.
The war-zone atmosphere spawned the nickname Chiraq. Waldo E. Johnson Jr., a professor at the Center for Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune that the name reflects the anxiousness among the city’s African American and Latino males. “They have to be hypervigilant at all times. They don’t know when they can let their guard down,” he said. “Even soldiers get time to step out of that.”
After months of negotiation, I finally reach Chicago’s most notorious soldier. “I’m in California on the beach, just chillin’,” Chief Keef says, sounding more on vacation than in court-ordered drug rehab. “Oh yeah, my rehab is on the beach. I ain’t know the name of the place; it just cost a whole bunch of money to get in.”
Keef’s world spins on a constant axis of chaos, but the fall and winter of 2013 will be remembered as the period when it all imploded. In November an Illinois judge ordered Keef to rehab after he tested positive for drugs, thus violating the probation mandated after his speeding charge. Soon after, Keef packed his bags and flew to Promises rehab center in Malibu, perhaps seeking refuge from Chicago hip-hop insanity. A month later, Keef fled to another undisclosed rehab center in California because of the “overwhelming media attention” he received at Promises.
Perhaps the attention came from Keef himself: In mid-November, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Police Department eyed year-end murder statistics, Keef outraged critics by posting “#ImFinnaRaiseTheMurderRateUp” on Instagram. In early December Keef clashed on Twitter with Offset, a member of the Atlanta hip-hop trio Migos, who threatened him: “Will be in Chiraq Next Week Pull Up @ChiefKeef.” And on January 3 Keef tweeted, “Dis bitch wanna smoke All my weed!”—something the judge will certainly remember when Keef returns for his next hearing.
It seems social media, Keef’s greatest weapon as a 16-year-old nobody, has turned against him as a millionaire hip-hop star.
“I was playin’ when I said I was gonna raise the murder rate,” Keef explains. “I was saying that I’m gonna have everything turned up again. I’m gonna be back to the old me instead of the leanin’ motherfucker that would record himself singing on Auto-Tune and shit.” Keef’s a perceptive critic of his own work; some of his tracks, including 2013’s “Go to Jail,” are Auto-Tuned into oblivion, and it’s easy to see how sipping lean—a mix of Sprite and codeine popularized in Houston—could have contributed to that woozy sound.
The beach has refocused Keef. “Sosa’s New Year’s resolution was to do everything he didn’t do,” Keef says, referring to himself by another of his nicknames. “Everything he passed up. Stop passing shit up. Do everything and be me.” In 2012 and 2013 he was a notorious no-show at awards ceremonies and his own concerts, landing him in legal trouble. In March 2013, promoters sued Keef, Wahid and Glory Boyz Entertainment in federal court over a skirted London concert. This new Keef, he promises, will be modeled after Lil Wayne, who branched out into fashion in 2012 with his skate-driven Trukfit clothing line. Keef’s clothing will be inspired by surfing. “I’m taking lessons and shit,” Keef declares. Days later, he posts a photo on Instagram with professional surfer Makua Rothman.
But the lure of social media means more beefs, particularly with Migos. “They went to Chicago, but they couldn’t see me,” Keef says with a laugh. “Where Chief Keef at? In rehab. Ain’t even there. That was some fake shit. Niggas went to Chicago and knew I wasn’t there, because if I was there, I would be on their ass. We’d be taking that thick-ass jewelry off their necks. We gonna take them just to take them. We gonna give them to some of the shorties on the block so they can take pictures with ’em. And that’s it. That’s gonna be the end of that story with Migos.”
It’s clear it will take more than sunny beaches and surf lessons to shake the old Keef. Rolling now, he promises more beefs in 2014 and says his foes should regard his Twitter feed as an early-warning service about coming assaults from him or his Glory Boyz crew. “I’m back to this old Sosa. Turn up. Get ready. I’m gonna get clubs shot up.”
Keef pauses for a breath. “I’m just crazy, man,” he says. “I don’t give a fuck about what I say, you know? Serious. Actions speak louder than words. Can I really raise the murder rate off a CD? That’s a whole bunch of bullshit.” He stops and laughs. “Can a murder rate really be raised off a CD? I mean, shit—I don’t know. It probably can, man. It probably can.”