Fourteen years ago, I sat in a federal courthouse in Brooklyn and watched Irv Gotti’s lawyer call Ja Rule a fake crook. Irv Gotti, the founder of Ja Rule’s Murder Inc. label, was on trial, alongside his brother Chris Lorenzo, for money laundering. Prosecutors were claiming that the two brothers had used Murder Inc. as a way to clean up the money of Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, the notorious Queens drug kingpin. Those prosecutors never took the step of playing Murder Inc. records in the courtroom, but they did make reference to the way the Murder Inc. crew publicly posed as mobster types. The defense lawyers scoffed at that line of reasoning, claiming, in this public courtroom, that it was all an act, that the rappers on the label were simply playing characters. Ja Rule sat in the stands an aisle away from me. His face registered nothing.
This, to me, seemed crazy. The mid-’00s were a time when New York rappers, especially Ja’s chief rival 50 Cent, flaunted all their street connections and made a big show of their tough-guy authenticity. Here was this lawyer, presumably being paid in money made from Ja Rule records, arguing directly against all of that. And here was Ja Rule, sitting there and taking it. But this lawyer was absolutely right to do so. In the end, a jury found the two Lorenzo brothers not guilty of all charges. After the jury read that verdict, I rode an elevator down to the courthouse lobby with Irv Gotti and Ja Rule. Irv, ecstatic and spluttering, rambled about how he’d never gotten in trouble for anything before this — no jaywalking, no nothing.
This past week, the Brooklyn rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine was in a Manhattan federal courthouse basically arguing the opposite of what Irv Gotti’s lawyer said that day. 6ix9ine, facing possible decades in prison on racketeering charges, was testifying against two of his former comrades in the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods gang. It made for quite a scene. 6ix9ine hadn’t been affiliated with Nine Trey before he’d launched his rap career. He’d intentionally gotten himself mixed up with the gang after he’d started to take off, and he’d flaunted his affiliation whenever possible — in videos, on social media, anytime he had the chance to scream gang slogans on record. When asked in court what he’d gotten out of that association, 6ix9ine said, “I would say my career… Street credibility. The videos, the music, the protection. All of the above.”
For pretty much its entire history, rap music has been entwined with organized crime. This has been the case for plenty of forms of popular music; if you’ve seen The Godfather, you already know. And the connections between crime and music have been pretty much the same since that story of Johnny Fontaine and the bandleader: criminals offering services and protection to musicians, musicians offering favors and financial remuneration to criminals. Rap is different in that it’s a fabulist and word-driven genre. A lot of times, we get rappers bragging on record about gang affiliations that may or may not be real. That’s been true on the underground, and it’s been true on the highest stages imaginable; Snoop Dogg, for instance, was bragging about his Crip flag on a #1 single 15 years ago. Gang life is part of the folk-tale tradition of rap music. It comes with the package.
Before the baffling, out-of-nowhere rise of 6ix9ine, I really thought that this connection was dead. The dominant rap figures of right now — your Drakes, your Post Malones — are moody sing-rapping weirdos, not tough guys. You no longer have to threaten to kill somebody’s kids to be taken seriously as a rapper. There have certainly been plenty of cold, hard rap figures in recent years — Future, Meek Mill, 6ix9ine’s adversary Chief Keef. But even in those cases, they’ve mostly talked about the trauma of growing up in marginalized communities, of getting into criminal activities because they had no other way out, of feeling like criminals because of it. And years ago, when news came out that kingpin drug-rapper Rick Ross was actually a former corrections officer, it didn’t interrupt his career at all. He was fine. Rap has been in a post-authenticity era for this entire decade. Nobody has to prove themselves realer than anyone else. It’s liberating.
But 6ix9ine was different. He hadn’t come up in the criminal underworld. He’d been a bodega clerk and a low-level weed dealer and a minor Instagram sensation, thanks to the flamboyant way he’d styled himself. And he’d ridden that style to some degree of online rap celebrity, briefly connecting with the Ohio sing-rap star Trippie Redd. He’d toured Eastern Europe, somehow. But he hadn’t gotten himself entangled with his local gang until he made “Gummo,” the video that made him online-famous. That video was so striking when it came out, in the eons-ago days of late 2017, because it was so weird and so brazen. Here was this freaky-looking kid, with the rainbow hair and the rainbow teeth and the multiple face tattoos, screaming like he was in Onyx and filling up the frame with sign-flashing Bloods. 6ix9ine wasn’t a real gang kid, but he played one on YouTube. And then he became a real gang kid.
There’s a bit in Black Card, the great new novel from the writer Chris L. Terry, where Terry describes the appeal of rap’s more violent, darker impulses in a beautiful, direct way. Here’s what he writes:
I love hip-hop because it’s courage and bluster in the face of a world it can’t control. Try explaining that to a white person who is hung up on the lyrics about guns and bitches. I don’t love those lyrics either, and really had to think it through, but decided that the offensive side of rap is a symptom of the disease we got from white people. Hip-hop in your head is a gun in your pocket: it makes you feel like no one can fuck with you.
It’s pretty clear that 6ix9ine looked at his Nine Trey affiliation in the same sort of way. It made him bulletproof. Back when he was famous, talking enormous amounts of shit as publicly as possible, he’d literally proclaim himself to be untouchable. And then he got touched. Different Nine Trey leaders were allegedly feuding with each other over the money that 6ix9ine was bringing in. In that courtroom, 6ix9ine testified that one of them had kidnapped him, that he’d thought he was going to be killed. He renounced the gang soon after, testifying that he was tired of being extorted. Soon after, as different gang leaders were caught on wiretap discussing ways to make him pay for what he was saying, 6ix9ine was arrested in that racketeering case.
It scarcely needs to be said, but 6ix9ine is not a good guy. Before he linked up with the Bloods, he pleaded guilty to use of a child in a sexual performance; at 18, he’d filmed himself in a Harlem apartment, smacking a 13-year-old girl’s ass while two men had sex with her. During his brief successful period, he’d gleefully taken part in all kinds of shit; he recently testified that he’d offered an associate $20,000 to shoot at Chief Keef. And he’s been spending his time in court detailing the gang affiliations of fellow famous rappers like Jim Jones and Cardi B.
But what’s most striking about 6ix9ine’s case is how avoidable it all was. 6ix9ine already had a rap career before he linked up with the Bloods. He would’ve been fine without them. The sight of all those guys in red bandanas — bandanas that 6ix9ine says he bought in bulk — definitely made that “Gummo” video more memorable. But 6ix9ine’s music and image were very much on trend in that early SoundCloud-rap era, and even though he can’t really rap, he could’ve easily gotten famous without them. 6ix9ine just did the gang thing because he thought it was cool, and because he thought other people would think it was cool. For a brief glimmer of time, it worked. Then it got 6ix9ine into deep shit with dangerous people. And now he’s both a pariah and a cautionary tale.
Apparently, prosecutors have discussed the possibility of moving 6ix9ine into the witness protection program. I can foresee a couple of big problems with that. The ending of Goodfellas would’ve played differently if Henry Hill had “Henry Hill from the mafia” tattooed multiple times on his face. Even if he avoids massive prison time, he can’t really come back to rap, since nobody’s going to want to work with him. (Except Charlie Puth, I guess? Earlier this week, the pop star posted and deleted a tweet that said he’d produce a record for 6ix9ine for free. No idea what’s going on there.) It’s hard to imagine any future, any life, for Tekashi 6ix9ine.
But 6ix9ine might prove weirdly influential in a sort of sad way. For years, prosecutors have been using rap lyrics in the trials of rappers. Just in the past few weeks, lyrics have been quoted in the vastly different criminal cases of Tay-K, YNW Melly, and Drakeo The Ruler. The whole outlandish circus around 6ix9ine has shown that prosecutors can find some level of success, or at least attention and infamy, from using those lyrics. 6ix9ine is out here helpfully explaining his own lines on the witness stand like he was in a Genius video. It’s got to be the most high-profile instance where rap lyrics have been used in a trial. If I had to guess, I’d say it’ll lead to more.
But rap music is a vital art form, at least in part, because you’re never entirely sure what’s real and what’s not. Reality and fantasy are always in a strange, complex dance. Rap, as a genre, is about self-created mythology. Rappers are unreliable narrators of their own lives. And sometimes, it’s the lawyers’ job to remind everyone that rappers are always playing characters, even when they’re telling the truth.
1. Bandgang Lonnie Bands – “Rerock”
The Detroit underground king Bandgang Lonnie Bands’ new mixtape Can’t Ban The Bandman — gloriously streaming on DatPiff, like 2007 never ended — is expert wordy and specific shit-talk bounce. This moody piece of evilness is everything the man does right in two minutes. Bandgang Lonnie Bands is one of the best voices in rap right now. Pay attention.
2. YS – “Bompton (Remix)” (Feat. 1TakeJay & OhGeesy)
An energetic California rap anthem — an old song done a new way, which is really an old way. Relentless slaps like this are just constantly coming out of California right now. It’s inspiring.
3. AzChike – “Every Nigga” (Feat. Rucci, 1TakeJay, Kalan.FrFr, Lil Deuce, AzSwayze, Blackk, & 1TakeQuan)
Case in point. Expert LA shit-talker AzChike ends his brand-new Rich & Ratchet album with this three-minute sprint, featuring eight different expert LA loudmouths getting their shit in in three minutes.
4. Tha God Fahim – “Don’t Go Summer”
Somehow, Atlanta native Tha God Fahim and LA native Earl Sweatshirt are currently making some of the best warm, contemplative classical New York stoner-rap. (They’re wrong about summer, though. Summer can stay away for as long as it wants if it means I don’t have bored and surly children in my house all day.)
5. ALLBLACK & Offset Jim – “Fees” (Feat. Capolow)
ALLBLACK opens this video with a tutorial on how to properly beat someone with a baseball bat, and it just kind of goes from there. Even at his coldest and most controlled — and even when he teams up with the permanently cold and controlled Offset Jim, whose name continues to confuse me — ALLBLACK brings the anarchy.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Did 69 tell on you? Find out next time, on Dragon Ball Z.
— Vince Staples (@vincestaples) September 18, 2019