On Chief Keef: Revisiting Gawker’s Nominee For Hip-Hop’s Next Big Thing

Chief Keef's latest mixtape

NOTE: I added a sentence to my initial post to reflect Drake’s assertion Keef had a strong following in among Chicago public high school students prior to his arrest. I also corrected an error I made about when he performed his first two Chicago shows.

From the moment Pusha T breathes fire into it, Kanye West’s remix of Chicago ROY candidate Chief Keef’s “Don’t Like” is appointment listening. The verses from Kanye, Pusha, Jadakiss, and Big Sean crackle with urgency, Young Chop’s beat thumps, and Keef’s hook has a middle finger in the air bravado that makes this song born out of teen angst electrifying.

The “Don’t Like” remix inspired me to seek out more Chief Keef material — he has two mixtapes — and read up on him. In doing so, I came across a Gawker article published in March that declared him “hip hop’s next big thing.” After reading the article and listening to a half dozen Chief Keef tracks, I can confidently write such a label being placed on him is not only undeserved but a bogus attempt by the web site to garner page views. For those counting, the article generated more than 59,000 clicks.

Through the magic of Twitter, I shared my opinion about the article’s headline with David Drake, author of the Gawker article in question. I refrained from expressing the latter opinion (about page views). To make a statement like that about Gawker would have been redundant.

Drake’s piece offers insight into Keef’s background, and theorizes the rapper’s career path changed when he was arrested following an incident where someone in his crew pointed a gun at a Chicago police officer. Hip-hop’s next big thing is on house arrest at his grandma’s house, Gawker announces.

Keef, Drake noted, had a dedicated following among public high school students in Chicago, prior to his arrest. He parlayed this fanbase into two shows prior to his arrest, one of which allegedly drew 800 people. A large portion of the crowd knew the lyrics to Keef’s YouTube hit “Bang”, a concertgoer told Drake. Drake takes this account as gospel. There is no one from the club quoted as saying 800 people attended Keef’s show. I’ll give it to Drake: At least one-tenth of that number appears on the stage with Keef as he performs “Don’t Like” in the clip the writer sent me.

It is obvious Drake put a lot of effort into reporting and writing this piece. As a fellow journalist, I respect his effort. But it is also obvious he let his Keef fandom get in the way of challenging anything that would have disputed the headline’s suggestion. He uses WorldStarHipHop’s post of a Keef-related video and Soulja Boy’s remix of Keef’s “3Hunna” to support his next big thing claim – hardly enough evidence to declare Keef a big-timer outside the Windy City.

“Your article read like a PR creation,” I tweeted Drake. To his credit, he did not respond to my criticism with vitriol. Instead, he offered more insight into why he championed the young artist. None of that insight, however, convinced me I had tuned out a major new voice in hip hop.

Drake is not alone on the Keef bandwagon. Influential indie site Pitchfork gave his latest mixtape a strong review. Ironically, the reviewer, Jordan Sargent, also writes for Drake’s blog, So Many Shrimp.

Two Chicago-based music critics loving the same Chicago-based rapper does not a conspiracy make. I am not implying that. I understand Pitchfork would want to use a reviewer, presumably, more familiar with the scene and the sound. What I am getting at though is these two glowing reviews came from a small pool in Keef’s backyard and do not necessarily mean an important new voice in hip hop has arrived.

When I told Drake via Twitter I thought the beats backing Keef consistently outshone his wordplay, the writer informed me Keef did not aim for wordplay.

What does he aim for, I asked. He responded with Keef’s own words.

“I don’t sit down and ‘think,’ I write about what’s going on right now, what we just did, what just happened,” Drake wrote, referring to a statement Keef made during an interview the two had.

That sounds great, in theory. I would be willing to bet Keef has seen a lot in his 16 years. However, his words fail to evoke the harsh realities of someone growing up in homicide-ridden Chicago. Instead, he chants about Anywhere USA standards like ho’s, weed, and guns.

Yes, I said chants. He does not rap. Hip-hop’s would-be savior does not rap. At least not in the context I think of when I think of someone rapping like, say, Pusha T or Kanye do on the “Don’t Like” remix.

When I listen to Keef, I hear a less polished, less talented, more derivative version of Waka Flocka Flame. Waka doesn’t do much for me either, but at least he goes hard in the paint.

Bang, bang.

13 thoughts on “On Chief Keef: Revisiting Gawker’s Nominee For Hip-Hop’s Next Big Thing”

  1. I think this article is fairly dishonest in its portrayal of the article & what we discussed on twitter. There was plenty of evidence of Keef’s following on the south side prior to even his arrest in December.

    If you want to dispute that Keef is an important new voice, despite the increasing evidence to the contrary, that’s fine; but I’d prefer you do it without trying to suggest that I didn’t do my due diligence as a reporter, or that I’m somehow biased or blowing something out of proportion — i described the facts as they were and are & supported my findings with a preponderance of evidence.

    1. You wrote, “he was not a rapper who was known outside of the local high schools” before Dec. 4. Sure, that has changed in the past week with the Kanye remix. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, have been introduced to his music. However, your article ran well before the remix. The article should have referred to him as Chicago hip-hop’s next big thing. Instead, it called him hip-hop’s next big thing and provided little evidence (outside Chicago) to support that claim. That’s why the article feels manufactured to me. Manufactured, specifically, to draw web traffic.

      I understand you interviewed concertgoers and teachers. I only recall seeing one concertgoer quoted in the story. I don’t recall any teachers quoted. The article mentions Soulja Boy and Lil B but does not mention attempting to contact them for comment on Keef. I can’t imagine Based God turning down an interview. Nor does the article mention trying to contact any industry officials outside Chicago to take his temperature on a larger scale. I know a journalist with Gawker, and one who has written for Pitchfork, can get a return call, especially when it’s on a story about hip-hop’s next big thing.

      Minus those voices, it’s just Keef and his DJ tooting their own horn throughout much of the article’s second half.

      This Keef on Keef quote troubles me:

      “I ain’t like nobody,” the 16-year-old said that afternoon. “You listen to me, you don’t hear people rap like me. I’ve got something that everybody’s following. I might get some line from somebody, just if I wanted to”—his emphasis— “but me, I’m my own person. I do everything me. How I rap comes from my hood.”

      This is borderline delusional. It would have been beneficial for the reader to have someone else in the industry speak to Keef’s uniqueness. I know Keef’s DJ talks about how different he was from the other wannabe MC’s. But he’s Keef’s DJ. That’s what he should be saying.

  2. Why would I interview Lil B? It was not relevant to the story I was telling. I interviewed the teachers to support that what I was telling was accurate–but it ended up being unnecessary to tell the story. I brought that up because you started implying that the quote I got from a concert goer was probably fabricated, which was completely disingenuous.

    Again, I didn’t write the headline, but the story isn’t actually about whether or not Keef is hip-hop’s next big thing. Please read the piece on its own terms and not what you imagine it to be saying.

    1. I never implied nor said you fabricated the quote. I don’t believe you did. However, I don’t understand why you did not show the reader you attempted to verify the information the person provided. Or at least show that other concertgoers made similar statements about the crowd and its ability to quote “Bang”. This person’s comment stands alone. For all the reader knows, he could be your friend or in Keef’s camp. I don’t believe your reliance on this person reflects the work you put into the story.

      Interviewing Lil B would have provided your story a non-Chicago voice who has gotten behind Keef. The same could be said for Soulja Boy. The reason I suggested you should have interviewed someone like this is to take the story beyond Chicago. Here is a rapper others are saying is about to blow up. But the people saying it in this story are all from Chicago. That does little for me as someone who does not live in Chicago. Hell, I am not sure it would do much for me if I lived in Chicago. Call me skeptical.

      I have read the story twice. It fails to explain why Keef’s music resonates with the ‘hood he comes from. It also fails to answer why his arrest played such a vital role in his ascent? Yes, I know it provided him some play on big hip-hop blogs. But does his blogroll success say something about the unrest in Chicago right now? If so, what does it say? I am trying to understand the hype, but all I am hearing on Keef’s tracks are poorly delivered, surface level threats/boasts.

  3. I’m not sure why I’m even wasting my time on you at this point, but Soulja Boy and Lil B publicly endorsed Keef, there was no need to call them for a quote. It was irrelevant to my story. Nor is it necessary for me to write about every single piece of verified evidence that I discovered.

    You’re asking my piece to do a lot of legwork that it wasn’t trying to do. If you’d like to see a story about why Keef’s music resonates in his hood beyond the reasons that I did notate in the piece, then perhaps you should write a piece the way you’d like to see it written.

    1. Fair enough, David. Hopefully you will do more legwork when labeling someone else Hip-Hop’s Next Big Thing in 2013.

  4. There are a number of reasons for the ever growing popularity of hip hop music and one common reason could be the fact that it is a no-frills sort of music that helps youth to immediately connect with it and enjoy it.

    1. I don’t understand how your comment relates to Chief Keef. His music has little substance and a whole lot of posturing.

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