The music industry wasn’t ready for Chief Keef

More than five years since the Chicago rapper’s debut album, it’s impossible to deny his immense influence on modern-hip-hop.

The music industry wasn’t ready for Chief Keef

More than five years since the Chicago rapper’s debut album, it’s impossible to deny his immense influence on modern-hip-hop.

I first met Chief Keef one unseasonably warm day in late January roughly six years ago, while he was on house arrest. He wore flannel pajama bottoms, a black t-shirt, and rosary beads, and we sat in the sunlight of his grandmother’s Chicago living room next to a portrait of Barack Obama while I asked him questions about his music. “See, motherfuckers think I can’t do metaphors. They—” he gestured at a fanbase, somewhere outside his grandmother’s 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.”

When we left, I asked my brother, who’d tagged along to take photographs, what he thought of the rapper who was — though we didn’t know it — on his way to becoming Chicago’s biggest star since Kanye West. In the years since, interviewers invariably describe Keef as petulant, incoherent, difficult, or drugged-out. Online, it was suggested he suffered from a learning disability, and message board rumors proliferated that he was autistic, as an explanation for his awkward on-camera behavior. But my brother’s immediate response at that early date felt closer to my own: “He’s so self-possessed.”

It’s no longer original to suggest that Chief Keef ended up being more influential than most expected when he burst from obscurity in 2012. “Influence,” after all, is an easy concept for a writer to apply, as it requires minimal investment — “influential” doesn’t mean “good,” or even “important” — and the scantest evidence. Music flows forward in an ever-broadening conversation, and ideas are constantly pilfered and improved upon, from even the least captivating artists. Any star who has been influential has been influenced, and every rapper who achieved any sort of fame over the past decade is described as “influential” at one point or another: Drake, Lil B, Odd Future, ASAP Rocky, Young Thug, Future, Migos.

But I’d contend that over the past six years, since Chief Keef first emerged, his impact has more directly defined the sound, shape, and tone of hip-hop writ large, than any other artist. (Kanye West — whose remix of “Don’t Like” both propelled and obscured Keef’s original — remains a powerful artistic barometer, but his biggest aesthetic impacts predate Keef.) Keef’s emergence was a paradigm shift that marked the arrival of a new generation, a sea change in the music’s sound, in how it was covered, where it came from, and how the industry marketed their artists. It’s especially impressive because he’s done so from an obscured position, invisible in the broader musical discourse. And the bulk of this influence came not from his work in the mainstream spotlight of 2012, but in his work after — when the popular consensus was that his career was over, a misfire, the product of opportunistic media hype.

When Keef’s 2012 debut label record, Finally Rich, sold just 50,000 first week physical copies, it was taken as consensus that his actual impact within hip-hop had been modest — that once again, the industry had overvalued online conversation and controversy over the tastes of listeners in the “real world.” But the truth was that for a new generation in the “real world,” social media and streaming meant his most devoted fans simply weren’t listening to CDs.

It seems obvious today, when streaming numbers drive the industry. Streams are a reliable predictor of ticket sales, and predict artist signings at both major and indie labels. Sales numbers, in 2018, are conjured through a complex formula incorporating streams and CDs, and for the vast bulk of hip-hop artists, those streaming “sales” dwarf CD sales. But in 2012, the Apple Music streaming service did not exist; Spotify had only been available in the United States since July 2011, and had only 5 million users worldwide by December of the following year. (Today it claims 70 million.) YouTube, where the majority of Keef’s fanbase consumed his work, had no impact on Billboard chart positions until February 2013, just as mainstream attention in Keef was beginning to wane. (When he did receive notoriety afterwards, it tended to focus on his list of ultimately minor legal infractions.)

In fact, his impact was meteoric. It can be witnessed in a comparative chart of Google search volume, which at its peak dwarfed the peaks of his contemporaries, who are now seen as more “mainstream” stars. Larry Jackson, the A&R who signed Keef to Interscope before leaving with Jimmy Iovine to work on Apple Music, put his new kind of stardom in perspective, telling me: “Week over week at Interscope, he was the most active social media artist we had. Bigger than Lady Gaga, in terms of mentions and online activity. Bigger than Maroon 5. He was a social juggernaut. There was nobody who had the kind of gravitational pull he had online. He was the first.”

During this period he took a radical new approach to the sound and composition of rap records, a prolific series of blueprints emulated by the many artists who followed in his wake. Unlike Soulja Boy — whose populist teen groundswell was one of Keef’s own inspirations — Keef developed a complex, cohesive, evolving aesthetic language, a style of both music and marketing, which was readily emulated over the next five years at home and across the country. Keef took a magpie approach to songwriting, building songs from the loose pieces of his influences: a one-off money-machine adlib from an obscure Yo Gotti mixtape cut would become a Keef signature; an obscure piece of D.C. slang would become the inspiration for a new song. This is how rap works broadly: pieces of linguistic and cultural detritus become the building blocks for even its greatest artists. Keef’s approach showed a sophistication and cultural knowledge that dwarfed most of his peers, pulling loose pieces from artists across the country and not only crafting an original rap style, but creating a seemingly endless variety of new forms from the rubble.

Keef had reoriented hip-hop’s center of gravity, pulling the genre into his orbit.

All of this interest occurred during the 2013-2016 period in which mainstream press attention to Keef was at low ebb. And yet interest among his core fans — including many of the artists who would become the next generation of stars themselves — remained high. It’s not hard to hear Keef’s influence on each of them, the Bush or Silverchair to his Kurt Cobain. One needs to look only at the 2016 XXL Freshman Class, the cover story focusing on the new generation of hip-hop stars. Each seems borne from a single strand of Keef’s creative DNA, a reflection of a different side of his sound, residents of a world he created.

Lil Uzi Vert was a Philadelphia fast-rapper two years Keef’s senior who completely reinvented his sound in the wake of Keef’s turn toward melody, as can be heard on “Love Sosa”-aping “Senor Guapo,” or the Bang 2 echoing “7AM” — a heavy influence Uzi has freely admitted. In 2013, before Uzi Vert’s name had earned any attention nationally, Danny Brown articulated what would be his entire sales pitch, in an interview with Pitchfork when describing Chief Keef: “To me, Chief Keef is totally punk rock. Like, the melodies he uses on his album– it’s like he’s not even rapping no more, he’s just singing. You could swap those synths and keyboards with guitars and fucking crazy drums and he’ll be a rock star.” But he wasn’t just singing; Atlanta’s Playboi Carti built a style that picked up on the drier sound of Keef’s wall-of-sound adlibs, fixated upon them. Atlanta’s 21 Savage, whose initial hit “Red Opps” banks off Chicago lingo and whose hit “No Heart” builds on a flow from Keef’s “Gettin Wild,” drew on the dead-eyed, detached aspect of the early drill sound.

In 2017, the emulation continued, as a wave of “SoundCloud rap” stars built on the swag and style of Keef and other Chicago drill artists, but aimed towards a suburban market; the slang of Keef and co. proliferates throughout this sphere, as does a reliance on mumbled and melodic styles and an obsession with the drugs popularized by traumatized artists with a Chiraq background. The “Aye” flow — a style of rapping Keef popularized throughout 2014 — had by 2017 taken over the genre as thoroughly as the “Migos flow” several years previous, with everyone from Travis Scott to Chance the Rapper to XXXTentacion emulating the style. Outside the media spotlight, which has fixated on SoundCloud rap, Keef’s influence extended into street rap grassroots. His own against-the-beat rhythmic pocket and stubbed flows with short, unpredictable phrasing proliferated in cities like Detroit, where Keef worked with similar street artists like Yae Yae Jordan and Rocaine, and has developed further among post-Keef street rappers with an ear for narrative style, like Chicago’s Valee and L.A.’s Drakeo. These artists don’t emulate Keef directly; rather they carry on an artistic lineage he’d returned to the forefront, a purposeful rhythmic deviation, a new sense of swing which sits between craft and intuition.

Yet it was not just those artists driven to emulation who benefitted from his immense center of gravity. He’d become a common denominator for whom new artists could market themselves in the contrast, who would find success in a marketplace which would rewarded them for being an anti-Keef. Chance the Rapper offered an optimistic vision for those eager for a young Chicago artist whose worldview didn’t seem quite so bleak. Rae Sremmurd’s youthful cheeriness offered a parent-approved pose Keef refused to perform. The Migos’ typewriter-like precision flows, which emerged one year later, were seen as a “lyrical” contrast by fans resistant to the newly dominant style of slurred mumbling. Young Thug’s elaborate melodic architecture and unconventional personal style was an eccentric, stylized parallel thread more beloved by critics, torn over Keef’s traditionally macho approach.

Before Rihanna released Anti, Keef described himself as “an ’anti-’ ass n---a, I don’t speak for shit.” His was a work of negation, a depressed paradigm against which every artist seemed to define themselves. His ideas detached from his art, his lingo becoming “powerful” affirmations of worth, or helping sell skincare products. Even Future, more than a decade Keef’s senior and one of his own influences, seemed temporarily unsure of his footing, his Monster rebrand a tonal shift back towards pessimism after the romantic ballads of the Pluto era were in danger of being eclipsed; Finally Rich outsold Pluto in first week sales, and Honest, its follow-up, only sold a few thousand more in its first week, with a much more robust roll-out. Rappers like Rick Ross, who’d relied on big-budget industry bangers, found their flat-footed flows were a relic overnight, as the drill music’s brash sound shifted toward melodic amorphousness and rhythmic uncertainty. Keef had reoriented hip-hop’s center of gravity, pulling the genre into his orbit.

Much as it was for Gucci Mane before him, citing Chief Keef’s “influence” has become a shortcut to argue his significance to hip-hop’s core fans, an importance largely invisible to the wider world, which wrote him off as temporary spectacle. Plenty of artists are influential without producing great music, of course, and considering the scope of Keef’s early success it would be easy to argue that it was a gatekeeper-propelled success alone which earned that following, anyway. To show that the new class of young rappers heavily emulated him isn’t itself an argument for his music’s inherent value. Indeed, even as the critical establishment belatedly opens itself to the idea his music is “influential,” the work itself is viewed from a distance, marked as “difficult” “fringe experiments,” even though the artists who benefit from his ideas reach the absolute apex of commercial success. His fanbase is often described as if they were a “cult following,” even though that “cult" seems to have included the broadest possible cross-section of rappers to find success since.

That his music requires a unique or even fetishistic sensibility to keep up with has been reflected in any number of publications, which keep the music at arm’s length even as they deign to cover it. Most recently, Keef’s Bankroll Fresh/Young Jeezy-styled Dedication — perhaps the most straightforward rap album he’s yet released — was cautiously qualified by Pigeons and Planes as “definitely not for everyone,” as if that couldn’t equally describe most artists covered by any music publication. In a year in which Keef dropped four full-lengths, Fader’s list of the best songs of 2017 highlighted “Come Down,” his benign contribution to Mike Will Made It’s Ransom 2, a song less reflective of Keef’s own innovative musical sensibilities than blandly traditional pop songwriting. To a world uninvested in hip-hop’s creative evolution, his value in these write-ups is primarily as a cult celebrity, a personality, or a meme, a flattened symbol of his background or media narrative. Just as his art itself seems to speak directly to one segment of his audience, it creates a mass-mental block in many other listeners, as if its value were fundamentally inscrutable.

Keef’s breakthrough single, “Don’t Like,” was often described as “nihilistic.” Nihilism came to stand in for everything: his music, his attitude, his person, his politics. It suggested he lacked an ideology, a belief system, or agency. He was a product of forces outside himself; his importance was a weightless, symbolic kind, a canary in the coalmine of the system’s moral rot. This isn’t entirely an accident; Keef’s attitude on “Don’t Like” purposefully creates a chasmic distance between listener and artist. Even as he utilized populist tools (catchiness, bluntly direct lyrics), this attitude keeps listeners at a remove, in parallel with how his art received arm’s-length treatment in certain spaces. Yet crediting “nihilism” for this distancing feels imprecise. Say what you will about them, but interest in authentic merchandise, affirmation of a familiar criminal code, and the ever-present armor of violence — a trope of street rap since N.W.A. — are not nihilistic values.

Rather than nihilism, Keef’s main attitude in the song is a much more obvious and familiar one: irritation. A list of things Chief Keef doesn’t like is a list of things he’s irritated by, a low-energy displeasure which reduces a range of concerns (bootleg sneakers; a friend’s betrayal at the jaws of the criminal justice system; the clinginess of romantic partners) to roughly equal standing. Our jarring experience of this music isn’t to its “nihilism,” but to his seemingly disproportionate, understated response to a life we think should prompt stronger reactions. Anger, say, at the injustice of his upbringing. Or perhaps he should respond in sadness, at the way death had shaped his life. (Essays critical of Keef’s “nihilism” often urged he “emerge as a voice that expresses the pain of his life...enough to move people to change,” though he’d already released expressive songs like this, such as 2009’s “Dead and Gone,” when he was just 14.) But “Don’t Like” isn’t angry or sad. If anything, the song’s video even suggests catharsis — joy, perhaps, at the empowering potential of feeling irritated.

But how can irritation be empowering? “Irritation” is what literary theorist Sianne Ngai calls one of the “Ugly Feelings,” in her 2005 book of the same name. These ugly feelings — dysphoric affects such as envy, anxiety, paranoia, and irritation, among others — are low-wattage, equivocal, and tend to sustain as moods, in contrast with more powerful emotions like anger, which hit sharply and suddenly subside and are seen to inspire action. Anger is widely accepted as a medium for political art; there’s no band called Irritate Against the Machine. Yet Ugly Feelings is an exploration of how these more ambiguous emotions, which tend to derive from situations of restricted agency, speak more directly to the way we live now — and to the way art itself is tolerated by a society that sees it as essentially toothless, unthreatening.

“There was nobody who had the kind of gravitational pull he had online. He was the first.”
Larry Jackson, former Interscope A&R

As mainstream attention waned and certain listeners became increasingly perplexed, his musical choices began to deepen their depiction of “Don’t Like”’s conceptual “ugly feelings.” “Bussin,” a popular 2014 loosie based around shootings in the neighborhood, treats outside gunfire as an unsettling, ambient constant. Rather than inspiring a sharp emotional response like fear, anger, or sadness, as one might expect, the music’s mood and lyrics create a sense of gunfire rolling in like stormy weather. Keef’s delivery shifts from controlled to fiery and back again. Like an engine trying to start that can’t quite turn over, his voice fights to make contact with the relentless, implacable rise-and-fall production. The effect is like a bad dream, as if for all his motion, he remains suspended in mid-air, trapped in a state of existential paranoia.

In this way, he pursued hip-hop’s possibilities not just at mere levels of lyrics or flow, but through the full breadth of song forms, and how these many forms create a range of effects. On the deliberate “Go to Jail,” he slowed the tempo to a crawl, a choice which seemed to test the audience, to make them yearn for the melodic structure which gradually coheres beneath the weight of his crumbling vocal timbre. These melodic records toyed with notions of his own agency—what was him, and what was the drugs?—yet their increasing sophistication over time, their further harmonic and textural invention, suggested an artist in control of his creations. Other songs developed his voice as a rapper, relying on dizzying, disorienting production, Keef’s unpredictable phrasing forging its own rhythmic pocket. Even to characterize his work as solely the domain of “ugly feelings" risks pigeonholing; some of his most popular underground hits were cheery trap anthems, another anomaly for the genre.

For many artists, being not-Keef was a benefit; for others, emulating his blueprint would benefit them, too. The only rule was that they should not be him. In actuality, his rise coincided with his fall, and the fall of his city. Before the 2012 drill boom, Chicago was painted by Obama-phobic right wing commentators not as a locus of violence, but of corruption and left-wing politics, of Tony Rezko and Bill Ayers. When Keef burst from obscurity, the script was rewritten, and Chicago became the source of a national pathology of violence. As Ta-Nehisi Coates would put it, Chicago became “code for ’black people’”—a deceptive racist shorthand, a method of creating an undifferentiated mass of uber-violent criminals against whom America could define itself. It wasn’t just the political right who bought into this idea; they might see Keef as a “monster,” but he was as dehumanized by a consensus view that saw him as a product of forces beyond his control.

Yet it wasn’t the spectacle of “black on black violence” which propelled Keef among his core fans. In December 2011, three months before Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida, Keith Cozart—a teenager six months his junior — was arrested for pulling a gun on a policeman. But rumors spilled out through the high schools that Keef had been killed in a shootout with police. In fact, he’d survived after a policeman shot at him. These events inspired the name of Chief Keef’s breakout mixtape, Back From the Dead. Yet still the grim spectre of Chicago’s “uniquely” violent backdrop shadowed them: “I didn’t and wouldn’t interview Chief Keef early on,” said Hot97/Beats 1 radio host and consensus-shaping gatekeeper Ebro Darden, who would go on to propel the career of New York’s Bobby Shmurda — a rapper whose sudden viral success in 2014 50 Cent called a “New York version” of Chief Keef. To this day, Keef’s unable to book a performance in his own hometown — even in holographic form — by police dictum.

In 2015, Keef and crew finally left the Chicago area for Los Angeles, where he lives today. A catalyst was the popped tire on a motorbike. “Five minutes later there’s 20 police cars surrounding the house with AK-47s,” Keef’s then-manager Rovan “Dro” Manuel told me. “In Highland Park. Tell me how safe, how much you’d want to stay around something like that. A tire popped and you walk outside the house, fifteen to twenty police officers with AK-47s with their fingers on the trigger. At any given time they could have made a mistake, or said, you know, ‘I see a gun!’ and AK-47s — ain't no turning back from that.”

The way “Don’t Like” feels so exuberantly irritated, the way it pushes away some listeners while attracting others, shows how aesthetics and politics can be deeply intertwined. In forcing listeners to react to his disproportionately modest response to extreme experiences, he retains power, and makes himself the target of the listener’s disdain. He shifts our attention from the injustice of his experience to his seemingly insufficient response. At this point, the listener makes a choice: does his refusal to perform sadness or anger or any other “expected” emotion make us disproportionately angry at him? Or do we identify with his attempt to wrest control and power from narratives and mechanisms which seek to annihilate his?

Who we are shapes how we will respond. Keef is, of course, influential, possibly the most influential hip-hop artist of his time. There’s a good case to be made he’s his generation’s foremost rap songwriter, spinning off more styles than any of his peers, which would put him at the forefront of his generation in popular music writ large — even if that creative success isn’t reflected by plaques on the walls. But the more interesting question is how he came to be so, and the answer is in his music. His creative choices made him a leader, especially for those who aspired to lead who he did, as he did.

David Drake is a writer living in Chicago. He previously wrote about the life of Lil Peep for The Outline.