A couple of years ago, I saw French Montana headline the FADER Fort during SXSW, and he brought a pair of deeply random guests with him: Macklemore and Diddy. This was a weird show and not a particularly good one. French had a live band with him, since live bands are a sort of luxury item for whatever rappers can afford them. But in French’s case, he had a band who had no idea how to do anything but clutter up his songs’ arrangements. They were a bad fit, and the guests weren’t much better. Diddy was fine, though he does have enough outsize charisma that he tends to make everyone else onstage melt away. And given that French Montana is one of the most expensively and flamboyantly dressed people in rap, it was goofy to see him dancing along to “Thrift Shop,” a song that directly contradicts everything he’s about. Near the end of the set, Diddy reminded the crowd that SXSW is supposed to be about underground artists immediately before launching into his verse from “All About The Benjamins,” a moment of such overwhelming cognitive dissonance that I felt like I was dreaming it. But the most interesting — and, in retrospect, the most poignant — moment of the show came at the very end. French gathered up Diddy and Macklemore to stand at the center of the stage and strike the sort of conquering-hero rap poses that big rap stars always do when they’re getting done with doing a show together. But they weren’t the only three people up there. There was a fourth: Chinx Drugz, a member of French’s Coke Boys crew and a promising solo artist in his own right. Even if he’d been doing hypeman duties for much of the show, up on that stage, French Montana and Diddy and Macklemore treated Chinx Drugz like he was an equal. And he looked like one. He had potential. And he never got a chance to realize it.
Lionel Pickens, the man who came to be known as Chinx Drugz and then just Chinx, came from Far Rockaway, Queens, and Queens is where he died. Early Sunday morning, police found Chinx and another victim in Chinx’s Porsche on Queens Boulevard. The car was riddled with bullets. The other victim lived, and Chinx died. Police seem befuddled by the murder, and we’ll probably never learn exactly what happened — if it was random jealousy or a botched robbery or something from Chinx’s old drug-sales days or what. Far Rockaway is a dangerous place, one that feels like it’s light years away from the more prosperous parts of the city. There’s never been a real rap star to emerge from Far Rockaway, and the fact that Chinx could make it out of there and get closer than anyone else ever came is a testament to grind and to talent. New York’s mixtape-rapper scene is vast and not terribly lucrative. If you’re a fan of rap and you live in New York, it feels like there are thousands of aspirants clamoring for your attention, taking up space on mixtapes and on the battle circuit. That’s where Chinx came from, and he made it from there to the point where Rick Ross and Diddy were throwing verses on one of his remixes. He made it to the point where he was a legitimate enough candidate for mainstream success that he had to remove the “Drugz” part of his name. (I always thought it was funny that the less-controversial half of his name was the racial slur.)
The first of these weekly rap columns I wrote was about another rapper who died before his time. That was the Jacka, a cult hero in the Bay Area and an unknown in most of the rest of the world. Chinx’s position was different. After all, he got to record with big stars, and he was attached to one of his city’s most popular rappers. He didn’t help shape his city’s sound the way the Jacka did; he simply existed within a context that had been around for years. New York’s rap scene is nothing like the scene in the Bay, or the scene anywhere else. It’s the birthplace of rap, and the genre’s unquestioned center for many years. It’s been a city in search of an identity since then. But within New York, French Montana and the rest of the Coke Boys crew are treated with a certain veneration that someone like A$AP Rocky, a star from the city, doesn’t necessarily get. They’re continuing a proud hardheaded New York street-rap tradition, one where innovations come slowly and organically. And that’s where Chinx may have had his greatest impact. He had an ear, a sense for what kind of music best suited his craggy flatfoot flow. In 2011, he got the New York producer Harry Fraud to produce his whole Flight 2011 mixtape, and Fraud soon gave French his first real hit in “Shot Caller.” Fraud’s sound, a floaty and sample-happy take on classic New York rap, pointed to one way forward for New York rap, and plenty of rappers have taken advantage. The association was good for Chinx, too, since Fraud gave Chinx the jaunty string loop of “I’m A Coke Boy,” his biggest hit. As legacies go, that’s not bad.
But Chinx’s real legacy was simpler and more complicated at the same time. He was someone who escaped Far Rockaway, until he didn’t. Before he linked up with French Montana, Chinx came up under Stack Bundles, another Far Rockaway rapper who met a strikingly similar fate. Stack was a longtime mixtape-circuit staple who, in his last days, was associated with Jim Jones’ Byrdgang crew. Early one morning in 2007, he was shot to death in Far Rockaway. Chinx, serving a prison sentence when Stack was shot, rapped movingly after his death. But my favorite Stack elegy comes from Chris Ryan, a writer who’s at Grantland now and who once wrote a really great blog comprised entirely of fake letters to Jay-Z. On Stack: “He was probably three quarters full of shit which is probably why I liked him.” I wasn’t a huge fan of Stack when he was alive, just like I wasn’t a huge fan of Chinx when he was alive. Chinx was a guy whose mixtapes I’d idly listen to when figuring out what I was going to write about that week. I’d like a few songs, but they’d drift by without leaving much of an impression. To plenty of others, though, those mixtapes, and the man who made them, meant a lot. That Chris Ryan post about Stack holds true for Chinx, too: “He wanted to be a star but you could tell he didn’t really want to leave Far Rock. He never did. Rap sucks a little more without him.”
1. Kevin Gates – “Khaza”
Gates named his daughter after the Hebrew word for “behold,” and then he named this absolute monster of a song after his daughter. Behold.
2. Gunplay – “Wuzhanindoe” (Feat. YG)
Gunplay tends to like beats as hectic and cluttered as his own flow. But his booming, passionate murder-threats mean more when his voice has enough space to really take over. On this eerie, thudding DJ Mustard track, that voice gets all the space it needs. Extra credit to YG for jumping on a track with one of rap’s preeminent tough guys without being reduced to yapping-chihuahua status.
3. Snootie Wild – “Hatin” (Feat. Bossie BadAzz)
The melodic Memphis sing-rapper sounds pretty slick over this bright-plastic Big Wayne beat, but he’s not the reason this song is on this list this week. The reason is Boosie, on an absolute fire-breathing hot streak right now, just going ripshit on this thing. If you can hear that Boosie voice without getting excited, you and I listen to rap music for different reasons.
4. Tyga – “Hollywood Niggaz”
This is a song written from a defensive place, a “stop criticizing me for dating a 17-year-old reality star place.” That’s not a particularly admirable message for a song. But Tyga has always been at his best when he’s in sinister-sneer mode (see: “Rack City,” “Really Raw”). And nothing brings out his sinister side like people criticizing him for dating a 17-year-old reality star. Great cover art, too.
4. Fat Trel – “Georgetown Intro / Molly Bag”
First half is “BMF”-era Rick Ross, second half is K.R.I.T. Wuz Here-era Big K.R.I.T. That’s a hell of a combination.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
i gotta start going to church it looks very interesting now pic.twitter.com/zJofHrqYts
— Shea Serrano (@SheaSerrano) May 19, 2015