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Chicago Hip-Hop Murders and the Media Blackout

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Lil Reese. Photo via NewsOne

On the evening of October 25, a video of Chicago “Drill” scene fixture (and Def Jam signee) Lil Reese savagely attacking a young woman surfaced on a number of hip-hop blogs. I’ll link to the video, with the proviso that it’s some seriously disturbing footage.

It’s not as if the video didn’t make waves in the hip-hop community: WorldStar HipHop and HipHop DX, among others, were among the first to break the story, and Complex, Vibe, and the Smoking Section provided updates as more details about the story emerged. But a number of prominent music blogs that have covered Reese’s music in the past were suspiciously silent. Indie blog Stereogum, which has been a frequent booster of Chicago’s Drill scene; Fake Shore Drive, moderated by Andrew Barber, one of Chicago hip-hop’s cognoscenti; The Fader, which at least until recently retained the services of David Drake, another influential Chicago hip-hop writer; and the indie rock powerhouse Pitchfork: the video of Reese merited nary a mention on any of these sites.

Unpacking why this is problematic requires a trip through 2012 in Chicago.

January: The video for Chief Keef’s “Bang,” shot by Chicago rap video director du jour DGainz, begins to make waves outside of the south side of Chicago, where it became a local viral hit after it was posted in August of 2011. “Bang” introduced Keef’s signature “ad-lib,” which involves Keef somewhat lazily imitating the sound of his gun. The lyrics to “Bang” are fairly self-explanatory:

Cock back ’cause there’s trouble a man’s gon’ blow
So they ass better get low
If she snitch, she can get 30 clipped

February 3: Pitchfork names Chicago-area rapper Lil Durk’s frenetic “I Get Paid” Best New Track.

March 31: Chicago records 53 homicides for the month of March, up from 23 in March of 2011.

April 12: Pitchfork reviews Chief Keef’s breakthrough mixtape, Back from the Dead. The album receives a 7.9.

We hip-hop fans like to have our cake and eat it too: We nod our heads to the genre’s salacious gun talk, being careful not to nod them in the direction of the victims of said gun talk.

April 21: The Fader reports on Kanye West’s announcement that he’s remixing Keef’s “I Don’t Like.” The remix initiates a major label bidding war for Keef’s debut, and border skirmishes for just about everyone in the Drill scene with a halfway decent mixtape. “Don’t Like” is essentially a litany of things Keef, well, doesn’t like, which include, among others, snitches, sneak dissers, and fake True Religion jeans. Keef has to record his verse for the remix from home, as he is on house arrest for brandishing a weapon at a Chicago police officer.

April 24: Keef affiliates Lil Reese and Lil Durk both sign with Def Jam. At the time of the signing, Durk is serving a three-month prison sentence. The cover of I’m Still a Hitta, Durk’s breakthrough mixtape, depicts a handgun and a pile of cocaine.

April 25: Chicago reaches 150 homicides for the year.

June 17: After a protracted bidding war, Keef signs with Interscope for a dollar amount that was undisclosed but rumored to be in the millions. The deal also includes a multi-picture movie deal through Interscope’s cinema arm, an imprint for Keef’s Glory Boyz Entertainment record label, and a line of headphones by Dr. Dre entitled “Beats by Keef.” The Fader and Fake Shore Drive report the story.

July 2: Chicago’s murder rate reaches 250. Compare that with a murder rate of 193 in New York, a city three times the size of Chicago. On the same day, Pitchfork releases an entry in their Selector freestyle video series, in which they take Chief Keef to a gun range outside of New York. The video also features Keef, then 16, smoking a blunt. The Root decries the video as exploitation, yet it remains online for the next three months.

July 4: Lil Reese releases his debut mixtape, Don’t Like, capitalizing on the success of the eponymous song, on which he has a guest verse. Stereogum names the album its mixtape of the week, and Pitchfork reviews the album and gives it a 7.4. On the same day, Fake Shore Drive names Lil Durk’s I’m Still a Hitta their favorite mixtape of 2012 so far.

August 16: Pitchfork releases another Selector entry, this time featuring a freestyle from Lil Reese.

August 22: Chicago sees 22 homicides in one week. The murder rate for the first half of the year is 39 percent higher than at the same time last year.

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September 4: Joseph Coleman, 18, also known by his rap alter-ego Lil JoJo, is gunned down while riding his bike in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. Chief Keef responds to the murder on his Twitter account: “It’s sad cus … Jojo wanted to be just like us #LMAO.” Following the revelation that JoJo tweeted his location hours before he was shot, the Chicago Police Department opens an investigation into a possible connection between JoJo’s murder and Keef’s comments on Twitter.

The incident goes unreported by Stereogum, Fake Shore Drive, The Fader, and Pitchfork. To give some context: Both Stereogum and Pitchfork reported on the arrest of Surfer Blood frontman John Paul Pitts for battery earlier in the year.

September 6: Three months after initially posting it, Pitchfork removes the Selector entry in which Chief Keef freestyles at a gun range, calling the video a “mistake.”

We have reached a point where Chicago’s predominantly white hip-hop press has essentially become a promotional arm of the Chicago Drill scene.

October 17: Prosecutors in Cook County ask a judge to remand Chief Keef to juvenile detention for holding a rifle in the aforementioned Pitchfork video.

October 25: The video showing Lil Reese assaulting a woman begins to surface around the internet. The video depicts the woman (later identified as Tiairah Marie) asking Reese and his friends to leave her house, at which point Reese begins savagely beating her. Reese later confirms that it was he who was depicted in the video and, after seeming initially unrepentant, apologizes for his behavior. The incident goes unreported by Stereogum, Fake Shore Drive, The Fader, and Pitchfork.

The same day, Stereogum names Lil Durk’s Life Ain’t No Joke its Mixtape of the Week.

October 29: The total number of homicides in Chicago reaches 438, up 23 percent from the previous year. This is compared with New York’s 339 and Los Angeles’ 238.

In a year in which Chicago has seen its streets practically run with blood, in the year of Trayvon Martin, in 2012, this is where we are. We have reached a point where Chicago’s predominantly white hip-hop press has essentially become a promotional arm of the Chicago Drill scene, a loose generic term applied to the kind of southern “trap” style music created by Durk, Reese, Keef, and their ascendant in-house producer Young Chop.

But when the physical evidence of the consequences of this scene’s violent rhetoric begins to mount, these same outlets remain silent. Well, actually, they remain as vocal as ever. But for all their effusive coverage of new releases by these artists — searching “Durk,” “Reese,” or “Keef” on Fake Shore Drive reveals that the site posts a story about every scrap of material released by Glory Boyz Entertainment and Only the Family (OTF) — they can’t be bothered to provide the context for the music they’re covering.

Why so silent? Maybe it’s because we hip-hop fans like to have our cake and eat it too: We nod our heads to the genre’s salacious gun talk, being careful not to nod them in the direction of the victims of said gun talk.

I’m a 26-year-old white guy who spends a staggering about of time listening to, reading about, or talking about hip-hop. I belong to the modern equivalent of a tape-trading circle, and I recently posted a link to The Diamond Life Project by Styles P, a super-glossy collection of grim, dead-eyed rhymes about drugs and guns. I count guns-’n’-drugs rhymers Clipse, Freddie Gibbs and King Louie (another Chicago upstart who I’ve been vocally supportive of) among my favorite rappers.

And incidentally, I live on the north side of Chicago, which shares little other than a name with the breeding ground of rappers like Durk, Reese and Keef. And while the bodies pile up just a few miles south, I bump my gangster rap, safe in the knowledge that the murder epidemic that has gripped the city I call home has virtually no impact on my world.

But I’m not the one with the bullhorn, the one who can affect the city’s conversation regarding its music and its violence. That obligation lies with outlets like Stereogum, Fake Shore Drive, the Fader and Pitchfork. (Both Stereogum and Pitchfork are headquartered in New York, but they’re both active commentators on the Chicago hip-hop scene, and Pitchfork still maintains offices in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago.) And they seem to have adopted a “just the music” policy (as least as far as Chicago’s rap scene is concerned).

The tragedy of this stance not only evinces itself in the hearts of such writers, who have to live with the knowledge that they’re capitalizing on the wave of violence that has claimed over 400 lives in their city, but also in the at-risk communities who are receiving exactly the opposite kind of attention that they need so badly.

The critical community aren’t the only ones who need to get their priorities straight. Are millions of dollars flowing into the hood? Yes. But they’re not going to organizations like CeaseFire, who mediate conflicts between gangs to try to discourage the use of violence*. Instead, Interscope signs a multi-million dollar deal with Chief Keef, and Def Jam follows suit with Lil Reese and Lil Durk. We shouldn’t expect major labels to do anything other than turn a profit, but the imbalance here is disturbing.

And if you’re wondering whether the success of Durk, Reese and Keef would inspire copycats, then look no farther than Lil Mouse, the 13-year-old South Side rapper whose “Get Smoked” has garnered more than 1.5 million views on YouTube. Is the Drill scene responsible for the epidemic of violence infecting Chicago? Of course not. But giving kids who beat up women and brandish guns at cops millions of dollars certainly sends the wrong message to kids in their communities.

When the media heap accolades on the Lil Durks, Lil Reeses and Chief Keefs of Chicago while failing to report on their transgressions, they’re pretending the violent rhetoric is mere fantasy.

In a way, the behavior of sites like Stereogum, Fake Shore Drive, the Fader and Pitchfork is more damaging than silence. It’s kerosene on a bonfire.

I’m not claiming that I’m the first person to notice this correlation. The Chicago Reader, The Well Versed, Ruby Hornet, The Smoking Section and Complex (with a smart piece by abovementioned Chicago rap maven David Drake) have all weighed in on the coordinated rises of Chicago’s Drill scene and its murder rate. And while The Fader failed to report on either of the incidents mentioned above, it did post a thoughtful cover piece on Chief Keef by Felipe Delerme that featured some cutting insights on Keef’s ascendancy:

Of all the things people said about Keef during my time in Chicago, what I heard most often was, “We’re dealing with a 16-year-old kid here.” The statement was echoed like a mantra in an effort to process Keef’s unpredictability. He’s a 16-year-old kid who’ll soon be responsible for the livelihood of a number of full-grown adults, if he isn’t already. He comes from a broken family and hasn’t finished high school, although I am told he’s begun working with a tutor. The people around him may be trying their best, but it’s clear someone stopped raising him long before he needed to be finished being raised.

But that passage was embedded in a cover story on Keef, one that featured a gallery of professionally shot photographs of Keef and his entourage engaging in what Delerme calls “sartorial opulence.”

And this dichotomy is indicative of why the media’s obsession with Chicago rap is so problematic: It only makes things worse. When outlets like Stereogum, Fake Shore Drive, The Fader, and Pitchfork heap accolades on the Durks, the Reeses, and the Keefs of Chicago, while failing to report on their transgressions, they’re essentially pretending their violent rhetoric is mere fantasy, a series of victimless crimes meted out via chunks of workmanlike poetry set to an apocalyptic soundtrack.

But for the victims of these crimes, like Tiairah Marie and Joseph Coleman, himself clearly a practitioner of the kind of gun talk that ended up claiming his life, their rhymes are anything but escapism.

You’ll notice that I haven’t made much hay of Keef’s or Reese’s reactions to their own dustups. This is because I explicitly wanted to avoid this being a hit piece on rappers like Keef, Reese and Durk, as appalling as their behavior can be at times.

These kids are the product of a system that leaves them without the schooling, parental guidance and social safety net that would prevent them from growing into the monsters they’re already becoming. There’s a fine line between documentary realism and straight-up promotion of violence, and I don’t expect these kids to walk it with anything approaching the subtlety of Jay-Z or, more recently, Schoolboy Q.

Let me be clear: I’m not asking Stereogum, Fake Shore Drive, The Fader and Pitchfork to cease coverage of Chicago’s Drill scene. I’m merely asking that you discard the foolish notion that you’re not taking a side when you don’t report on Chief Keef celebrating the death of one of his rivals on Twitter, or Lil Reese assaulting a woman as she screams for help. Your silence is an implicit stamp of approval.**

Don’t hide behind your status as a music blog. Start earning the “journalist” half of what you call yourselves: I depend on you guys to tell me what’s going on in the hip-hop world — good and bad — and you let me down. But more importantly, you’re letting this city down by reporting with blinders on.

And let’s none of us — myself included — plead ignorance when we bump our favorite violent rap. That violence has a face, and we know what that face looks like. And right know, we owe her an explanation.

At press time, Stereogum, Fake Shore Drive, The Fader and Pitchfork failed to respond to my attempts to contact them via Twitter.

* CeaseFire is also chronicled in the award-winning documentary The Interrupters, directed by Hoop Dreams’ Steve James.

** Kevin Coval wrote a book of poetry called More Shit Chief Keef Don’t Like, which includes ruminations on just this subject.

Jordan Pedersen is a comedy writer in Chicago who just closed a show at Second City. You can read his thoughts on hip-hop on his Twitter and his Tumblr, You Need More People.

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