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Lil Durk: For Better or Worse, Still Signed to the Streets

On the cusp of Lil Durk's Def Jam debut, we look at the stark consequences of the intersection of violence, social media, and hip-hop in Chicago.

by Tyler Trykowski
Oct 10 2013, 5:45pm

L'A Capone's music video for "SO LOUD" opens to the rapper waking up, pulling himself out of bed to a hazed-out, dreamy synth. He ties on a new pair of Jordans, tousles his skinny dreadlocks in a bathroom mirror and wipes sleep from his eyes, ready to face another morning in Chicago.

Framed by the city skyline, he tells us he's "all about getting this green, all about getting this guap/I'm gonna do it with my team, doing it with my block." He's 17, his face still unhardened by time. Lyrics like "shot a block up, no more rounds/these boys ain't making no noise, these boys ain't making no sound" declare his approach to navigating life on the south side.

But on the evening of September 27th, he was murdered upon exiting a recording studio near 70th Street and Stony Island Avenue. The boy, whose real name is Leonard Anderson, was not carrying a gun at the time.

His death marks a year since the murder of Lil Jojo, another young, aspiring Chicago rapper. Jojo was gunned down after uploading videos and tweets insulting rival rappers, including Lil Reese and Chief Keef, and his death made national headlines after a then 17-year-old Keef, one of the biggest rappers of his generation from Chicago, issued a series of incendiary tweets about the incident. "Its Sad Cuz Dat N****a JoJo Wanted to be Jus Like Us #LMAO," he wrote just hours after Jojo's death.

Keef would later claim his account was hacked and the tweets weren't his, but the incident was pundit fuel to argue where the intersection of social media, gang warfare and rap lies in Chicago, and which is to blame for what.

Capone's death marks another in an ongoing epidemic of Chicago violence. The only thing that's changed is the national attention these murders see, and that's all thanks to the way these horrible events play out in a very public fashion. Between the way social media has become a cornerstone of teenage life, and the newfound fame of Keef, Reese, Lil Durk and others in a handful of Chicago rappers signed to major labels last summer, more eyes are on the city than ever before.

Today, Lil Durk, a 20-year-old rapper from Chicago, will release his first production for Def Jam: a mixtape called Signed to the Streets.

Durk and Capone were close friends for five years and approached the same subjects in their work. For example, every song on Capone's mixtape "King L'A" deals in violence and death, whether dying for respect on Face Down or declaring his "love for the gat" on its closing track: He sleeps with it, eats with it, believes in it, trusts nobody.

In Durk's video for "L's Anthem," we're greeted by sweeping views of the Chicago skyline, then find the rapper holding his son, surrounded by friends and French Montana, who appears on the single's remix. The crowd holds up Ls with their hands, makes handgun motions at the camera and bounces around, arm in arm. At one point, a team of Chicago police break the party up, wearing bulletproof vests.

It is one of the singles that launched Durk to prominence in mid-2012, with lyrics about Durk's loyalty to his friends and his gang (L being a gang sign and a reference to its motto: "Life, Love, Loyalty.") He insults rival gangs on the original track, references which have been censored by Def Jam in their release. Durk tweeted, "rip lil bro" hours after Anderson's death, posted an Instagram video captioned, "Wish my dead N****Z was here" the next day. Three days later, he posted a screenshot of the song Anderson recorded the night he died, named "Brothers," promising to "drop it the right way." A later tweet reads, "U lames ain't clapping shit."

Chicago is the city that birthed drill music, rap focused on portraying the cold realities of South Side life. Drill takes inspiration from Southern rap's aggressive sound, adding a more hostile approach often imbued with violence, made by rappers who are frighteningly young. In other words, it's trap music, or music birthed from houses where drugs are dealt, on steroids. Some drill artists lay outside those conventions, but its defining hits follow those lines.

Much of it is tied to Chicago's complex gang landscape, which some have accused major labels of exploiting as they sign teenage rappers to deals worth hundreds of thousands. They do so in pursuit of "an authentic urban experience," as veteran Chicago MC Rhymefest has charged.

Within the last decade, several Chicago gang leaders have been imprisoned and major housing projects shuttered, which has led to a fractured gang topography where once a handful of groups dominated. Hundreds of gangs, all with conflicted allegiances, now war in Chicago streets. Factions within those gangs war, factions within those factions war, and there are factions without loyalties, known as "insane." Listen to Chief Keef's Back from the Dead mixtape and you'll hear a half-dozen street corners, blocks and cliques mentioned throughout.

In an interview this August for Complex, Durk mentioned the greatest risk he's ever taken was rapping. "Because once you start rapping, a lot of people hate on you," he explained, "so if this didn't go right, I'd have to deal with the hatred and the violence." In an interview for VladTV, he tells us that "everybody in Chicago wants a name for themselves. Through killing, basketball, football, anything. It's a lot of jealousy. If one of the kids is trying to get their name up and he sees somebody hooping, name getting up, he'll feel jealous and kill him just to get a name. It starts from the young."

What has changed in Chicago since the summer of 2012, which marked the breakout of Keef, Durk and other drill stars to major label fame? A lot: We've seen the rise of Chance the Rapper, the city's latest breakout star, who while he shouts out Keef on his ubiquitous Acid Rap tape, makes music that is worlds removed from the drill scene. A new kind of music has emerged, called bop, which maintains the vicious storylines of drill but frames them in melodic, joyful synths, making for a compelling juxtaposition. We've seen Durk and Keef bicker over accusations of stolen jewelry and Keef's refusal to pay Durk's jail bonds.

Keef, for his part, has both maintained the streetwise image he came up with and backed down from it: He now lives in Northbrook, a Chicago suburb far from the neighborhood that raised him, where he splits his time with Los Angeles. He was indicted for a parole violation last year after appearing in a video holding a rifle. He's wisened up since then, if only a bit.

Durk, Chop and Reese allege that nothing has changed for them personally. "I'm still living the way I was before," Young Chop said in an interview with XXL. "Just the money. That's the only thing that changed." Durk echoed his comment: "It hasn't changed me," he said. "It just changed what I can do for myself and my family. That's all."

Whether Chance's rise, bop's popularity, or Keef's retreat to the suburbs say anything about anything is debatable, but they certainly reveal that Chicago is changing, as cities do. Drill remains popular: Signed to the Streets, and the forthcoming release of Keef's Almighty So on October 12th, are proof the sound still holds national appeal. However, it does command less of the spotlight a year after Kanye West remixed Keef's "I Don't Like."

A reporter who visited Anderson's home the day after his death described the chocolate cake sitting on his mother's kitchen counter, half-eaten after her son's birthday the week before. She described her son's love of cereal, the cabinets filled with boxes of it, how he'd eat three bowls for dinner. She described the gold crown she bought him for his first birthday, how she would make everyone call him king.

As young artists try to replicate the success of Keef, Durk, and Reese, the rappers no doubt consider themselves lucky to have found it first.