When a teenage rapper gets famous, it’s usually because you can’t look away. Despite the fact that he was 17, everybody wanted to have sex with LL Cool J when he put out Radio. At 19, the young Nasir Jones might as well have been Rap Jesus. Fast forward a few years, and you had Earl Sweatshirt, who at an impossibly young age rapped like Damien crossed with a Scribble Jam champ. As for Chicago’s Chief Keef, the most recent famous-as-shit teenage rapper, well, he’s got a story for you. It’s not in his rapping, which more or less borrows Waka Flocka’s “this is a sonic warzone” sound and takes it to weirder and weirder places, landing even further out in left field. While Flocka screams beats into submission, the sixteen year-old Keef doesn’t begin to try to overpower them; he just seems over it, mumbling some nonspecific tough talk and then getting out of his own way so he can drop his signature adlib of, “Bang!” He also raps about specific locations and specific gangs and stuff in Chicago, but the only people for which that’s genuinely important are nerds and people who are actually from Chicago; otherwise, he might as well be rapping about In-N-Out Burgers on Neptune. The intensity of the beats and Keef’s tendency to act demure gives his music a certain polarity—while many of the rappers above exhibit a very specific brand of magnetism, Chief Keef is literally a fucking magnet. You listen to his music and watch his videos, and he’s just there, and you’re drawn to it without really knowing why. Listening to Chief Keef is almost like watching horse racing in alternative reality where instead of following the horses, people were just really into the jockeys. That’s Chief Keef. I don’t understand why I love him. But I do, and so does everyone else.
Before jumping head-on into Chief Keef’s debut NYC show at SOB’s last night, it’s probably worth going over a brief history of all things Keef, as to explain exactly how the fuck a teenager sold out the most storied hip-hop club in the city. Chief Keef first became popular in August or so, when his song “Bang” became a local hit amongst his fellow Chicago teenagers, which is, objectively, a pretty awesome thing to have happen to you. Slowly, the video amassed nearly half a million views on the website WorldStarHipHop, a video site known equally for posting rap videos as well as videos of people beating the shit out of each other on the subway. In December, just as Keef was building a head of steam that might have led somewhere, he got arrested for an incident involving a gunshots being fired between he, two friends and some police officers. Keef and one of his buddies were arrested; the third kid disappeared. A lot of people thought Keef was dead, which would have been objectively uncool, but then it turned out he wasn’t, and was released on house arrest at his grandmother’s house. From there, journalists started picking up the trail of Keef, and when you’re armed with a hook of “there’s this sixteen year-old rapper with a viral hit who’s on house arrest at his grandmother’s place,” the pageviews basically amass themselves. Interest was garnered, and an official mixtape was released—Keef’s first. It’s called Back from the Dead, and it’s quite good. In April, Keef’s lawyer did some special Lawyer Stuff, and Keef was allowed to perform at a hometown date opening for fellow Chicagoan King Louie and yell-rap genius Meek Mill.
Shortly thereafter, something completely huge happened. Chief Keef got remixed by Kanye West. West, who raps about being from Chicago so often that he nearly beats you over the head about it, heard Keef’s song “I Don't Like,” and decided it was his new favorite song. It’s easy to see why—its hook, repeated with slight variation for most of the song with probably forty “bangs” thrown in there for good measure, renders it nearly impossible to listen to “I Don’t Like” only once, and it’s stuffed to the brim with the type of mindless aggression that’s indigenous to pissed-off teenagers. So in typical Kanye West “TURN EVERYTHING TO ELEVEN HAVE YOU SEEN THIS T-SHIRT DID YOU KNOW THAT HUMAN BLOOD IS GREEN” fashion, he took the song and refashioned it in his own image—producer Young Chop’s beat received a coked-out makeover, Chop’s mesmerizing, cacophonous oddity transforming into an operatic sonic boom, just begging to ooze out of the speakers of Toyota. Then, Kanye threw himself, Pusha T, Big Sean and Jadakiss onto it. This had two immediate, fairly obvious effects: One, lots of people suddenly knew who Chief Keef was. Two, many of these people only knew him because of “I Don’t Like.”
When Earl Sweatshirt of Odd Future was sent to Samoa by his mother, he and his friends were on the cusp of getting ridiculously famous, the type of famous that Chief Keef is getting. However, the only way Earl could track he and his friends’ rise was by reading the internet, passively observing from afar. That must have been completely and totally maddening, but at least there was a quite literal separation there that probably helped him justify his stagnation. Chief Keef, meanwhile, could watch himself get famous by looking out his bedroom window. Yeah, he could leave his house to go to school, and he played his aforementioned show. But besides that, he was like a really eager farmer who couldn’t go outside harvest his crops because if he left his house he’d get arrested. Keef remained on house arrest until May 27th, according to his Twitter, and he began to make some serious moves.
By now, we’ve hit roughly a week and a half ago in our timeline of all things Chief Keef. What happened on Sunday, June 17th is probably more important than Chief Keef getting remixed by Kanye, because on Sunday, June 17th Chief Keef announced to MTV’s RapFix that he had signed with Interscope Records and had inked a publishing deal with Dr. Dre. This essentially means that Interscope probably gave him a shit-ton of money to record music (the exact sum hasn’t yet been disclosed), and his publishing deal will allow him to continually make money off of the songs he writes. In all likelihood, Keef has been signed without the public’s knowledge for quite some time. This is common practice within the music industry, because many things about the music industry are inherently sinister.
So, when it was announced that Chief Keef would be playing his first New York show at SOB’s, it came to the surprise of no one: SOB’s is quite literally the place for hip-hop in New York. Kanye has played there. So has Drake. When DMX put on his comeback show in February, he could have sold out venues three times the size of SOB’s, but he played at SOB’s regardless, because selling out a big venue doesn’t mean shit if you can’t still sell out SOB’s. There’s just something about the place that makes it feel important. Perhaps it’s precedent. Perhaps it’s the large concrete pillars flanking the front of the stage. No one really knows.
Which brings me to an observation I made while drudging through two hours and six opening acts to get to Chief Keef. When DMX prowled the SOB’s stage, the club staff was very obviously trying to pack every single molecule of humanity into the place that they could; when Dark Man X barked, everyone seemed to be momentarily pushed against the walls because the sound waves were taking up too much room. They couldn’t have fit another body in that place if they tried. Last night, meanwhile, there was a generously sized VIP section off of stage right; it took up a space that could have easily fit a hundred people. Suddenly, Chief Keef had roughly eighty less seats he had to sell in order to have officially sold the place out. I’m not saying the powers that be rigged the venue to sell out, but someone, whether they meant to or not, padded Chief Keef’s stats. Regardless, this came at Keef’s benefit—the phrase “sold out” looks a hell of a lot less impressive with the word “nearly” in front of it, so you might as well take all the help you can get.
Like I said before, there were six openers and they all finished their sets within fifteen minutes. It was like being at a hardcore matinee, except everyone was drinking. Some of them are not worth writing about. Many of the performers were from the “New Chicago” scene that Keef himself hails from, which draws its roots less from Kanye and his ilk, and more from the mechanized menace coming out of Atlanta. Of the Chicago guys who played, the rappers Young Gift and Fatal seemed to be the ones worth checking out. Tim Vocals, who is not from Chicago, was the one opener who managed to shock the goddamn hell out of everybody. He got onstage, clad in a black leather fitted hat and a black leather vest adorned with studs, and proceeded to use one of the world’s four most angelic voices to sing some of the grossest songs imaginable. His tightwire act lost balance when he decided to cover a Michael Jackson song, but it didn’t really matter because his set was over after four songs.
Despite Tim Vocals’ vocalizations and the best efforts of Young Gift and Fatal, the crowd was growing restless. They didn’t come to SOB’s to see just anyone. They came to see Chief Keef. Boos were summarily lobbed at openers. Attempts at drumming up some crowd participation, never a sure thing amongst openers, were about as effective as Korn’s dubstep album. At one point, bottle of Grey Goose with a flaming sparkler was brought to the VIP section, seemingly for no reason. That’s never a good sign.
At 11:58pm, sporting an electric blue vest, a white polo, dreadlocks and some of the coolest aviator sunglasses in the universe, Chief Keef and probably seven of his friends took the stage. He seemed amped as hell and ready to go, so to kick his set off he spent two straight minutes posing for pictures from the crowd. This is fine; this is what most sixteen year-olds would do in this situation. Maybe it was his gigantic sunglasses, but Chief Keef made this process seem completely non-annoying. Endearing, even.
It seems like there’s something inherently unfair associated with putting a sixteen year-old rapper out in front of the nasty shark tank that is the New York music press when the ink is barely dry on his contract. At worst, the show would be like what would happen if you made a dip-addled 18 year-old major league prospect pitch against the Yankees: pure carnage. At best, many speculated, Chief Keef would simply stand up there survive. However, when Keef launched into his opening number, he actually rapped the damn thing. He hunches when he gets excited, like a boxer about to deliver a punch, except Keef invariably just yells, “Bang!” He crouched a lot. It works in a contained environment like SOB’s, but if Keef is really going to show some returns on Interscope’s investment, he’s going to have to learn to project energy as well as absorb it.
The performance as gestalt was sloppy, but joyously so. A mosh pit formed in the front of the crowd, rife with crowdsurfing, a weird amount of Chief Keef lookalikes making their way out of the woodwork. Enough people knew the words that it wasn’t weird, and a few songs in, Keef finally let loose with “I Don’t Like,” which judging by the crowd’s reaction seemed to be the one they were mainly there to see. Throw in a perfunctory rendition of “Winnin’,” which featured a King Louie verse that Louie didn’t even bother to rap despite the fact that he was standing next to Chief Keef, and the set was a wrap, clocking in at a cool nineteen minutes. On one hand, this felt slight—it cost $25 to get in, and those who showed up at the 9pm door time were forced to wait three hours for nineteen minutes of prime time. That’s not cool. On the other, Chief Keef hasn’t yet built up a store of high-quality material, so it’s in many ways best to leave the audience wanting more. Because for those twenty minutes, Chief Keef looked like he could rule the world. Or at least move out of his grandmother’s house.
Photos by @KevinSheaAdams