All photos by Danny Manhattan.
It’s late August, at some ungodly early-morning hour. We’re at Studio 11 in downtown Chicago, talking to a Def Jam A&R guy named Sickamore. He is calmly overseeing the tumultuous career of Lil Durk, a 20-year-old rapper who’s currently encased in one of the studio’s glass vocal booths, a Gucci scarf draped over his shoulders. If you look closely at the tattoo above his right eye, you’ll see it reads angelo, the name of his son. The engineer cranks the vocals up over dark drill beats crafted by producer Paris Bueller. Sickamore turns to us and says “We wanna frame him as 50 Cent meets Justin Bieber!”
Those who have yet to have their heads trepanned by South Side Chicago’s drill-music scene—made famous by Chief Keef, sponsored by Kanye West, with a sound streamlined and perfected by a barely 20-year-old producer named Young Chop—may not have heard Lil Durk or his music.
Though unapologetically violent and quite possibly gang-affiliated, Lil Durk is probably the poppiest of the serious-as-cancer drill rappers. The genre, which was once called “death music,” is the brutal soundtrack to Chicago’s catastrophic gang violence and astronomical murder rate. The city is home to more than 100,000 gang members belonging to 59 gangs, and in 2011 alone 319 of its school-age children were reported shot, purposefully or otherwise. It was apparent that things had completely spiraled out of control when some Chicagoans began referring to their hometown as “Chiraq.”
This is the environment where Lil Durk thrives, along with a cadre of loosely associated artists. Tonight the studio is crawling with rappers, producers, and crews affiliated with Lil Durk’s Only the Family (OTF) clique, along with miscellaneous members of the 300, a faction of the nationwide street gang Black Disciples, with which Durk and Keef reportedly affiliate. The most high-profile members of these crews are Lil Reese, Fredo Santana, and, of course, Chief Keef.
Chief Keef has made a career shouting threats over rolling, mechanistic, post-ATL trap beats which somehow became party anthems that rich white girls dance to in their dorm rooms every night. Lil Durk, on the other hand, painstakingly explains his sublegal lifestyle and the more disappointing aspects of life in one of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in the US, and how he’s not exactly happy with some of the ways his life has shaped up. While these crews make innovative and brutally truthful music that has far transcended the streets where it’s recorded, the Chicago cops are also following these rappers very closely and—unfairly or not—using them as a means of keeping tabs on street factions. Rap crews are a fast and loose way for Chicago cops to track the city’s complex, fragmented, and incomprehensible landscape of gangs.
This past June, Lil Durk beat a gun charge after the Chicago Police Department charged him with the unlawful use of a .40-caliber weapon by a felon after officers on the scene allegedly saw the rapper throwing a handgun into his car. Nine witnesses testified in support of Lil Durk, and the indictment was dropped just in time for him to record Signed to the Streets, which was released in early October.
A man who has had a tumultuous six months, Lil Durk doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon—barring the invasion of Chiraq by US Armed Forces.
Fredo Santana, a.k.a. Big Boss Fredo, another upcoming artist from Chiraq.
VICE: Your A&R guy just referred to you as “50 Cent meets Justin Bieber.”
Lil Durk: Word.
Are you OK with that?
Shit, man, all compliments is good compliments. You gotta believe in yourself. You put a motherfucker to the test and see how he feel, like, “Yo, black man, you think you better than an award-winning rapper?” If they be like, “I dunno,” that mean they don’t believe in themself. That mean it ain’t for you.
Are you a Belieber?
So, how was jail?
It’s a fifty-fifty thing. Because half of going to jail is being inside, thinking you aren’t relevant, missing out on your family, and everything else going on. Thinking you’ve been forgot. At the same time, you’re sitting there thinking, When I get out of jail, I know I’ve got a better way of spending my money, getting another deal, and changing shit around.
We were walking around 63rd Street the other night, filming some stuff to wrap up our documentary about Chiraq and wondering if you were gonna stick around. It’s crazy out there.
They killing kids. And this whole rap shit might be over in two more years, know what I’m saying? Plus there’s, like, hip-hop cops. We got our own personal police.
Who are they?
Chicago Police Department. It’s like CPD be there directly for us. If they catch me and Reese stunting on the block there, they charge us with trespassing. Just little dumb shit. They’ll blow it out of proportion, make up some shit with it.
So you’re saying your crew gets profiled no matter what?
Yeah. I don’t want it to be like OTF is only on the news for a gun case. I want to hear the newscaster say, “OTF just bought a building, for the kids. They bought the jail and they’re turning it into a gym.” Shit like that. Short term, when I hear somebody say “OTF” on the street, I wanna hear somebody say, “Yeah, OTF! Woo-woo!” You’re all in it together.
Yeah, but I’m trying to branch off. Chicago crazy, but at the same time, I’m trying to get some money. Some of that Flo Rida overseas millions. Outsourcing.
That $10 million. Six months later, come back with a new Bugatti. Have you ever thought about moving if things get too crazy?
Nah. If I’m from there, I ain’t gonna wanna move. I’m still gonna excel. I ain’t got no big problems. You gotta get smarter. But I might want to move to LA, get my kids out this shit. Do you think Chicago is getting better or worse?
For rap or for the violence? The violence.
Fifty-fifty. Sometimes it go smooth—sometimes the killing gets light. Then something real stupid happen, like someone’s baby get killed. That happened a couple months ago, a little girl got killed in the park. So I don’t know. They do some of the dumbest shit in Chicago, man.
See more of Lil Durk, Young Chop, Chief Keef, and friends on the new series Noisey Chiraq, coming soon to Noisey.