America in the 21st century is one of the most economically polarized and heavily armed societies in history. As the top rises, it becomes harder to see the ground through the clouds.
Disconnected, nihilistic subcultures have developed in areas abandoned and forgotten by mainstream society. Such aberrant cultures used to exist only in isolated wildernesses: mountain men in north Georgia, or the uncontacted tribes of Brazil.
But today, with the prevalence of guns and drugs, cities are wildernesses, too.
“These guys are from an entirely different world,” says Peeda Pan, manager of the notorious Chief Keef (aka Sosa aka Keith Cozart), the most gangster gangsta rapper since the 1990s. At only 19, he’s already been to jail twice and rehab twice, in part due to his penchant for Instagramming photos of himself posing with guns.
When a rival was murdered, Keef tweeted, “LMAO,” prompting an uproar among more mainstream rappers like Lupe Fiasco, who threatened to retire because of it. Fiasco said, “Chief Keef scares me. Not him specifically, but just the culture he represents.”
It’s that culture, however, that attracts people to Keef’s music. Those of us who live in the confines of the mainstream are fed up with it, and hearing something truly foreign is refreshing. It’s not that Keef’s lyrics are particularly depraved or violent; it’s something about the way that he says them. They’re almost a different language, like deep-space recordings from another, more brutally honest world.
That world, “Chiraq,” aka the South Side of Chicago in 2014, is indeed about as far from the world most of us occupy as you can get. Shootings are so frequent that local papers publish tallies of the violence, rather than individual reports.
I asked Tadoe, Chief Keef’s cousin and member his rap group/entourage the Glo Gang, how Chiraq differs from other hoods.
“We turnt. We too turnt, fo. We too turnt. Just look our shit up, fo. It’s too much goin’ on,” says Tadoe, “If we was still back there we’d be dead or locked up or some shit, fo. Or tweakin’ out. But we out here coolin’ now, we into this money.” He hits a blunt, then starts yelling: “Tadoe OG! Chief Keef OG! Gangin’! Shiiit. We still on our shit though. We still got shot, still got guap.”
Tadoe and I are sitting in the backyard of a mini-mansion in a dreary part of Woodland Hills. In July, Chief Keef moved here from Chicago to be closer to his record label, Interscope.
In 2012, at only 17 years old, Keef signed a $6 million deal with Jimmy Iovine’s label, which is also home to Dr. Dre's label, Aftermath. The deal had to be presided over by a judge because Keef was still a minor.
Chief Keef caught Interscope’s eye (and everyone else’s) after a raw, ghetto-chic music video for his song “I Don’t Like,” featuring Lil’ Reese and produced by Young Chop, became a national mega-hit. The catchy song, in which Keef lists things he simply doesn't like (e.g. "fake niggas," "bitch niggas"), has an instantly relatable quality. There are certain things, after all, that we just don’t like, no matter how many Huffington Post headlines try to convince us otherwise.
One of the things the mainstream doesn't like, however, is Chief Keef himself. Before moving to L.A., he had been living in a wealthy suburb of Chicago called Highland Park. He got evicted for terrorizing the neighborhood.
My conversation with the Glo Gang at their Scarface-style McMansion was intended to serve as a precursor to an interview with Keef himself. Upon request, I had brought a six-pack of beer and two bottles of Hennessy, and blunts were passed with metronome-like frequency.
Despite those ice breakers, the conversation was strained and awkward. The news that Interscope had dropped Keef and the Glo Gang was leaked by a rap blog that morning.
The Keef camp had already known about it for a week, but they had intended to keep it a secret. Their demeanors, and their tweets, evinced an attempt to stay positive. Keef tweeted: “When Jimmy n Dre left that’s when I said fuck Interscope! Big Dick style. that’s what I signed up for not this new staff! Of WhiteHonkies!”
Inside the house, however, you could cut the tension with a blunt knife. There was lots of silence. Keef himself, dressed in all red, occasionally appeared in the background like an elusive species of deer, but would vanish again before I could approach.
Peeda Pan, whose real name is Idris Abdul Wahid, is the only one who calls Keef “Keith.” He has a tough job. On the one hand, he wants to introduce Chief Keef to the real world, and is realistic about the necessity of publicity. On the other hand, he respects Chief Keef’s irreverence, and understands that it’s the essence of his appeal.
“What you have to understand about these guys is that they’re not in it for the same reasons as a lot of other artists,” says Peeda Pan, “A lot of people get into it to be a part of their idols, to meet them, and to make music in the game they love. For these guys that stuff is all secondary. For them, music is just another lick.”
Everyone, including Keef himself, acknowledges his old soul. He appears to take fatherhood seriously (on Instagram, at least), and, in the few interviews he’s given, he seems quietly aloof, fully aware of the expectations thrust upon him, but uninterested in meeting them.
His entourage admires him unconditionally, and views him as a sort of musical teacher-slash-guru.
“We learned all that from Sosa, we be in the studio with him so much,” says Ballout, another member the Glo Gang, “He’s a rhyming machine. A music genius. Black Justin Bieber, if you ask me.”
There are times, however, when he still acts like a teenager – probably, after all, because he is a teenager.
He still smokes blunts around the clock, and still posts photos of himself with guns. He meets girls on Instagram and arranges for them to visit him at the house for a night at a time, sometimes flying them in from across the country.
“He’s the kind of guy that, once he decides he wants something, he’s going to get it, no matter what,” says Peeda Pan.
One time, Peeda Pan ignored a bevy late of late night calls from Keef, and found that he was gone from his room in the morning. Keef showed up in a cab an hour later, grumpy and red-eyed, with a disheveled woman in tow. In the middle of the night, Keef had hired a cab to drive to Sacramento, pick up the girl, then turn around and drive all the way back. The taxi cost over $1,000, and the girl stayed over for only one night.
But normally, Keef doesn’t get out much. His gang loves him, but it’s a smothering kind of love. His managers pressure him to stay in the house, in part for fear that somebody, particularly Tadoe, who has a penchant for pulling out guns while drunk, will do something that will get him incarcerated again.
During my visit to Woodland Hills, Keef kept telling Peeda Pan that he “wanted to do something fun,” but, for reasons I couldn’t discern, everyone remained in the house. It felt a little like a prison.
In trying to contain the storm, his two very different managers – cunning, personable Peeda Pan, 34, and the vociferous, domineering Uncle Ro, 42, – play parents to a new breed of teenage sensation and his clique of Lost Boys. It’s P and Ro’s responsibility to schlep the whole Glo Gang through the only subculture with customs as inscrutable as their own: Hollywood, U.S.A.
P and Ro work well together in tandem. They’re trying hard to figure it out, to maintain Keef’s integrity while competing with play-nice rappers from well-funded, mainstream upbringings like Drake, Mac Miller and Chance the Rapper.
But sometimes things bubble over. Uncle Ro’s Tony Soprano–like temper, in particular, has led to some harmful blowups, one of which occurred at Interscope, not long before they were dropped, and one of which occurred during my visit. After a nearly four-hour wait, and a heated argument, Ro slammed the door in my face.
Two days later, I sat across from an apologetic Peeda Pan at Beverly Soon Tofu House in Koreatown. We were supposed to meet Chief Keef at a nearby Wokcano to finally get the interview done, but it had been canceled once again, because Keef had run into fellow irreverent thug rapper Tyga. Tyga is Compton’s answer to Keef, and is equally uninterested in propriety. Peeda Pan believed they were probably off doing things that they didn’t want press to see.
I tried to explain that doing those things was precisely why people like me love Keef, and exactly what people wanted to see. Everybody from Frank Sinatra to Biggie drank and did drugs and screwed groupies. That’s what made them symbols of freedom, and that’s how I wanted to portray Keef. Didn’t he want that?
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“This is a new generation,” said Peeda Pan. “They’re not measuring success in the same way. They’re not playing by the rules.”