A few months ago, rap’s pale punching bag Russ took to Twitter with a brave anti-lean/anti-xan messaging via T-shirt: “How Much Xans and Lean Do You Have To Do Before You Realize You’re A Fucking Loser.” Fredo Santana responded chillingly: “Until I can stop thinking bout my dead homies an the trauma that I been thru in my life that’s when I’ll stop” Complete with demonic emoji.
A few months later and Fredo’s dead, found in his LA apartment after reportedly suffering a seizure due to kidney and liver failure. Hardly a validation of Russ’s finger wagging, let it be a sad confirmation of what Fredo already seemed to acknowledge: the traumas of his past weighed too heavily. He was reportedly trying to get clean, after suffering a similar seizure in October, and had commented on a Mozzy post saying he was “60 days clean” and “fuck dat lean shit.”
Fredo, government Derrick Coleman, was 27 when he passed, placing him at 22 when GBE started sending Chicago up with gun-shot adlibs and drill music. Keef became the movement’s star, but Fredo, Keef’s older cousin, seemed a necessary element. GBE’s sheer shock value at the time derived from their status as urban boogiemanchildren—these were the kids responsible for the murder rate and crime in Chicago, and here’s the music they’re making. Without the very scary sight Fredo, with his little facial cross tattoo in the background of “I Don’t Like” and “Love Sosa,” their stories and visuals would not have achieved the same effect. To white suburban America getting their taste of Chicago, he was that menace personified.
But to paint Fredo as just a scary lean-sipping background flexer is to severely undersell his own songwriting. With his brash delivery and uncomfortably believable street threats, he was an easy favorite of the crew as Keef’s high tide rose elevated all ships in the vicinity. He opened up 2013’s Its A Scary Site 2 with the proclamation “Fredo making music that them real trappers trap to!” He was always firmly rooted in the streets, for the streets, even while floating on tracks with Kendrick Lamar (a feat even Keef hasn’t yet achieved). On his most recent release he’s experimenting with some truly out-there autotuned melodies, making one think Fredo had much more to achieve before his life was cut short. Still, his influence is immeasurable. If Keef fathered Lil Uzi’s style, Fredo had the coldblooded blueprint for 21 Savage.
In the early years, the man responsible for building the Chicago drill sound was DJ Kenn. He’s sort of an enigma: orginaly from Japan, Kenn found himself in Chicago at age 20. If you believe the common DJ Kenn apocrypha, he was walking his dog and ran into the GBE crew and started renting a room from Keef’s uncle. He had a studio, which meant a hangout spot for all the neighborhood kids who wanted a break from the block.
With a little digging, you’ll find Kenn’s fingerprints over all the early drill work—he produced “Bang,” shot the iconic “3Hunna” video, and a bunch of low-budget videos from before GBE’s explosion in 2012 (all archived on his YouTube channel). As someone ground-level on the GBE phenomenon, we asked DJ Kenn to speak on his relationship with Fredo Santana, before the fame, and his lasting legacy. What follows is a transcript of our call, condensed and edited.
DJ Kenn: When I first met them all, they were just badass kids from Chicago. Keef and them were younger, but Fredo was about 16. Already, they’d stopped going to school. They were already doing what grown men do, all at such a young age. They were their own men, they ain't had no big homie. They talk about O-block—they were outside, on the block, for the whole first year I knew them.
First I knew Keef, and Big Glo Blood Money. Then Fredo started coming around to my studio. I recorded everything there. I shot video, I might even cook something for a motherfucker. Rice, pasta, we ain't had no vegetables back then. But with ham, sausage, I used to whip it up when they were hungry.
At first, Fredo didn't give a fuck about nothing. They'd never write, they'd only do freestyles. But once Keef started to go crazy, people find out, and realize this shit's gonna happen if we take it seriously. But for Fredo, those first few years, ain't nobody give a fuck about no music. They're just doing it to have fun.
For Fredo, the first video I shot was "On That." (singing) 'I'm on that, I'm on that." That's my favorite Fredo song. He'd just gotten out of jail, and then had to go back again like a month later. So we recorded it the month in between. I didn't know how to mix the song, so Fredo brought Young Chop to the studio and he mixed the song for us. Chop was trying to put me in the game too.
Fredo’s energy—it was just him! Always, he used to say, "I don't give a fuck about no rap shit." He wanted money, he loved music, but more than that, he was just tryna be him. He wasn’t about if people are gonna like him or not. He didn't give a fuck.
When GBE went to New York, I went with them. We went to meetings with Bad Boy, Def Jam, every record label in New York. Everyone wanted to fuck with GBE. It was crazy, everything was changing so fast. Even now, niggas making crazy money, millions. We don't have to stay in one room together no more. Everyone got their own studio, their own record deals. Everything changed.
At the end of the day, I’ll remember he always showed love, more than all these other rappers. He was more genuine. He understood the business, but I think he was a more real dude. He's not fake on social media. Stories will come out about what he used to do, and people will realize he was a really stand-up dude. Whenever he could help someone, he'd do what he could.
Fredo influenced the lifestyle. It's not only the music. He's never just a musician, kind of like Tupac, doing poetry, other stuff besides music. So a lot of his influence is not from the music. It’s how they were talking, how they were wearing the clothes, their whole lifestyle.
The times I want to remember with him are… We came up, together! We them niggas now. We just used to dream this. Nobody used to care about Chicago, but now everyone looks at Chicago. We did that! Everything. We did that. Now there's all these labels, radio, Red Bull, no one was around back then. We did that.
RIP Fredo Santana!”
You can find DJ Kenn’s recent projects on his YouTube, and his news site Shibuya Tyson .