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Collage by Duanecia Evans Clark, The Creative Summer Company. Archival images via Unsplash, Creative Market, Dan Robinson, and Audible Treats. 

Inside the NYPD's War Against Drill Rap

Sheff G says he's among those being unfairly targeted by the NYPD's "Rap Unit." It's costing him and rappers like him their livelihood.
Duanecia Evans Clark
illustrated by Duanecia Evans Clark
New York, United States
October 21, 2020, 3:50pm

Unpaid Royalties is a series about the myriad ways that the music industry exploits Black artists—and what's being done to change them. Read more here.

In July, Sheff G released Just 4 Y’all, a five-track EP that showcased his Brooklyn bravado and knack for melody. The project’s cover art depicts the 22-year-old Brooklyn rapper rocking a crowd of fans with their hands in the air. But since attaining notoriety with 2017’s “No Suburban,” he hasn’t been able to perform in his home city because of the NYPD.

In 2019, Sheff was one of five artists—including the late Pop Smoke—the NYPD asked Rolling Loud to remove from their October 2019 lineup. Just days before the Festival, the NYPD wrote Rolling Loud organizers a letter warning that “if these individuals are allowed to perform, there will be a higher risk of violence.” Other New York artists like A Boogie, A$AP Rocky, and Action Bronson were apparently safe enough to ply their trade—but Sheff wasn’t.

“That shit was mad discouraging,” Sheff told VICE. “It made me feel like, ‘you know what, [I should] just give up.’” He performed at King’s Theater for the February 2020 BK Drip Fest—but the NYPD shut down his set as fans rushed the stage to dance to “No Suburban.” The following month, the city shut down due to COVID-19, and live music across the country became all but nonexistent.

“That shit was mad discouraging,” Sheff told VICE. “It made me feel like, ‘you know what, [I should] just give up.’”

Artists have their best shot at engaging their fans at live shows, but the NYPD has deprived Sheff, and so many other rappers like him from the bustling Brooklyn drill scene, of that opportunity.

Sheff G (whose legal name is Michael Williams) is a poster child for hip-hop’s upward mobility. He’s been a breadwinner of his family since “No Suburban” took off, and went from experiencing homelessness in his teens to buying his first home at 21. “Rap changed our life, our family’s life, and generations to come,” he told VICE. “[With rap money] you don’t gotta be around certain things no more.”

In Sheff’s native Flatbush, Brooklyn, those “certain things” can be treacherous. He named his 2019 debut album The Unluccy Luccy Kid in reference to the pitfalls of poverty he experienced—homelessness and proximity to violence—as well as his triumph over them.

Brooklyn drill artists use rap to escape the perilous streets they rhyme about, and by specifically targeting the scene, the NYPD is effectively preventing Sheff G and so many artists like him from doing so. “In hindering [rappers’] ability to earn a living, you force them to stay in that world,” Sheff's manager Jeremy "Jerm" Soto said. Soto described the Rolling Loud ban as “injustice.”

Officers depict themselves as crime-stoppers, but by stopping rap shows, halting video shoots, and surveilling rappers, they’re also career-stoppers. Brooklyn’s Pop Smoke died without ever performing a hometown show. (His posthumous debut, Shoot For the Stars Aim for the Moon debuted in July at No. 1.) Bobby Shmurda was ensnared in a gang indictment in 2014 right as his career was taking off, months after the video for "Hot N*gga" earned him viral fame, a No. 6 single on the Billboard Hot 100, and a deal with Epic Records. He was recently denied parole and will be in jail until 2021.

“In hindering [rappers’] ability to earn a living, you force them to stay in that world.”

The NYPD arrested not just Bobby but 14 other alleged members of GS9. Bobby and Rowdy Rebel got seven-year sentences, while Rashid “Rasha” Derissant was sentenced to 98 years and Santino “Cueno” Boderick was sentenced to 117 1/2 to 130 years. The sweep was a dubious highlight for a department that boasts a hefty $10.9 billion budget, some of which is spent on a gang unit and a hip-hop special intelligence squad known as Enterprise Operations Unit, or “the hip-hop police.” In a May 2019 article about the hip hop cops' presence at a 2018 Remy Ma concert at Irving Plaza, the New York Post noted that the NYPD maintains a presence at such concerts:

"Officers assigned to the unit draw up weekly entertainment reports about scheduled hip-hop shows at city clubs, and designate each as posing a low, medium or high risk for violence or other crimes. That information is passed on to local precinct commanders and intelligence officers in the field, with local cops in turn flagging shootings and other incidents associated with clubs in their precincts."

Derrick Parker, a former NYPD detective who ran the “hip-hop police” unit, has admitted that the NYPD regularly targets rap scenes and associated crews.

"The NYPD sees rap groups as gangs committing crimes, and they see the rapper as someone who has money and public influence," he told Vulture in 2015.

L.A.-based gangs like the Bloods and Crips became prominent on the New York streets in the mid-to-late 90s, leading the department to emulate the LAPD’s racialized anti-gang tactics. The NYPD began compiling a gang database in 2001. No one knows who’s on the list, or what the actual requirements are to be put on the list, but the database had more than 42,000 people as of 2018, and grew 70 percent since Bill De Blasio became mayor, according to The Intercept. In 2018, Chief of Detectives Dermot F. Shea testified that the database was 99 percent nonwhite. Then-police commissioner Ray Kelly doubled the gang unit (which had been around since the 80s) from 150 to 300 officers and launched “Operation Crew Cut” in 2012. The operation specifically targeted gangs—and paved the way for the kind of sweeping gang conspiracy cases that took place throughout the 2010s.

Kelly said that New York’s gang violence wasn’t based “on narcotics trafficking or some other entrepreneurial interest, but simply on local turf” during an October 2012 public appearance. That arbitrary praxis led to racialized targeting. Gang violence is framed as a menace, but per the Intercept, CUNY School of Law professor Babe Howell found that “crime committed to advance the interests of a gang” accounted for just 0.1 percent of crime in New York between 2013-2017.

“The police will arrive, declare their group an unlawful assembly, and immediately start snatching people off the street," Kaishian said. "They search them, and charge them with various crimes, sometimes things as simple as disorderly conduct simply for filming their music videos.”

A 2019 report found that of the 120 people arrested during the NYPD’s 2016 sweep of Bronx’s Eastchester Gardens housing projects, “two-thirds of defendants weren't convicted of violent crimes,” and “more than half of people charged were not even alleged to be gang members.” The report also found that of 90 people charged with firearm offenses, only 22 were convicted. The operation’s wide, ambiguous net gave NYPD officers free reign to target any group of Black or Latinx youth as potential gang activity—even if they were just filming a music video.

Lawyer Maryanne Kaishian has worked with public defender organization Brooklyn Defenders for more than five years. She’s worked with drill rappers who’ve had their lyrics used against them in court, and others who have been arrested at video shoots.

“The police will arrive, declare their group an unlawful assembly, and immediately start snatching people off the street," Kaishian said. "They search them, and charge them with various crimes, sometimes things as simple as disorderly conduct simply for filming their music videos.”

“You understand the police have a job to do. But at the same time, it's kind of a war on kids, man."

Sheff’s video shoot for “Panic Pt. 3” (which also features rappers Sleepy Hallow and Fresh G) was shut down by the police in the Fall of 2018. “The police stormed the whole video, [and] stopped everything,” Sheff said. They even locked up Fresh at his own video shoot. In footage of the NYPD’s bust at the end of the video, Sheff is seen telling Fresh to ask his arresting officer “what he booked you for?”

When VICE asked Sheff if NYPD harassment affected how he decided to shoot videos, he had a resolute answer: “Fuck them, we ain’t doin’ nothin’ illegal.” Soto agrees that the NYPD is needlessly targeting these artists. He believes that the police and community should be working together—and commends their presence during a Labor Day Ice Cream giveaway that Sheff and Sleepy Hallow hosted—but laments that not every cop is community-minded. “You understand the police have a job to do. But at the same time, it's kind of a war on kids, man," he said. "It needs to be a different approach because you have professional men that are supposed to be well-trained [mistreating] young men.” The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.

After Sheff’s BK Drip Fest performance was shut down by the NYPD, Soto saw the “hip-hop police” telling the local NYPD unit that they had made a mistake, he said. “These kids are not in the street anymore,” Soto recalled one of the “hip-hop cops” telling their NYPD peers. Nonetheless, they were pulled over and harassed by more cops on the way home from the performance, Sheff said.

After that, a show he had scheduled in Long Island was effectively shut down when the NYPD sent a letter much like they did to Rolling Loud organizers, he said.

The live show is an artist’s bread and butter. It’s a key chance to build a bond with fans, and earn a consistent income. Compelling videos are how artists separate themselves from the pack and give fans a glimpse of who they are. Bobby Shmurda wouldn’t have blown up as quickly without the charismatic, Shmoney-dancing, hat-tossing “Hot Nigga” video. But if it were up to the NYPD, it would’ve never happened.

Keef, who is effectively exiled from Illinois because of warrants, even had a hologram show in Indiana stopped by local police—right after Keef urged the crowd to “stop the violence.”

Stopping an artist’s ability to perform hurts their growth and their income. Sheff’s circumstance is similar to that of Chicago drill artists like Lil Durk, G-Herbo, and Chief Keef, who all left the Windy City because the Chicago Police Department was shutting down their opportunities. Keef, who is effectively exiled from Illinois because of warrants, even had a hologram show in Indiana stopped by local police—right after Keef urged the crowd to “stop the violence.”

The NYPD, like the CPD, and the police institution as a whole, thrive on containment, harassment, and surveillance. They work hand-in-hand with the prison system to incarcerate Black and brown people, and they do so by finding the lowest common denominator of criminalization.

Earlier this year, Mayor De Blasio blamed impending budget cuts on COVID-19, but the NYPD budget isn’t hurting like other city departments. Activists asked the city to slash the NYPD budget by $1 billion, with the #NYPDBudgetJusiceCampaign noting that the current budget is “larger than what we spend on health, homeless services, youth development, and workforce development combined.” De Blasio didn’t heed the calls.

The Citizens Budget Commission records that the NYPD’s city-funded operating budget is projected to shrink by 6.6 percent in the 2020-21 fiscal year. Meanwhile, the Department of Parks and Recreation shrank 13.1 percent and the Department of Youth and Community Development experienced a 24 percent decrease. The Summer Youth Employment program served 75,000 14 to 24 year olds last fiscal year, but is set to serve just 35,000 this year (De Blasio at one point planned on halting the program altogether, but reversed course). The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has a $1.6 billion budget, which is less than 2 percent of the executive fiscal 2021 budget. The department will be under more strain as New York State warns of a “20 percent across-the-board” cut from mental health and substance abuse services. Instead of putting more resources into impoverished communities and healing people who’ve faced trauma, the city has disproportionately cut from these programs.

“They treat us like shit, and they don’t wanna see us elevate. And that’s it, period.”

“Every dollar spent on policing is a dollar that isn't spent on housing," Kaishian said. "It's a dollar that's not spent on education. It's a dollar that's not spent on alternatives to policing such as organizations. At the expense of everything that could help and heal its communities, we are instead placing all of our resources on policing, which only exacerbates the pain and suffering.”

Sheff said that he feels like the city could benefit from more youth athletic programs. The circumstances he explores in his music are a manifestation of municipal negligence. When he rhymed, “bodies drop, can't do shit but put chalk around 'em” on “Flows,” he grimly encapsulated the peril of an environment where kids have less access to opportunity as those in upper class neighborhoods.

Politicians and police commissioners want us to view people like Sheff as dangerous, instead of understanding that they’re put in danger by cities that intently underserve them. But Sheff represents hope. He represents the potential to game the system and turn an unlucky situation into financial stability.

Nonetheless, he believes the NYPD has “a hatred” toward rappers. “They treat us like shit, and they don’t wanna see us elevate," he said. "And that’s it, period. It don’t matter if they act like they like you. They don’t like rappers. We gotta stay away from them.”