The Chicago upstart went viral before the industry knew how to measure it — and an entire subgenre of rap blossomed from his brilliance.
On January 2, 2012, a video appeared on WorldStarHipHop titled “Lil Boy Freaks Out After Learning His Favorite Rapper Chief Keef Gets Out Of Jail.” The video no longer loads on the site, but the stats indicate it was viewed over 400,000 times. Those are paltry numbers in today’s climate, but in 2012, it was enough to briefly shake up the internet. Chief Keef was only 16 at the time. I’d heard his name around town, but he was still underground and unknown to the larger Chicago music community. Operating a Chicago rap blog, I was first on the scene to give a rundown of Keef to readers locally and outside the city, but what I didn’t know was that this video would kick off what I call the Great Chicago Gold Rush of 2012.
In 2012, I was five years into running my blog, Fake Shore Drive, hyper-focused on highlighting the Chicago hip-hop scene — and later the entire Midwest — which I felt was underserved in the greater hip-hop convos happening online. I’d witnessed the ascent of Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco in real time. I watched Twista and Common stage second acts that brought them long overdue mainstream acclaim. I had boots on the ground for The Cool Kids’ rise and watched how they influenced a generation through fashion and sound. But something about Chief Keef’s explosion was different. He was bubbling below the surface and finally boiled over thanks to a viral video. No big industry cosign, no PR push, no angel investor, no mainstream press, and no major label. Keef wasn’t pursuing radio or television. He and his crew posted their videos directly to YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. It didn’t appear they even cared about chasing the industry — the industry had to chase them.
A few months earlier, Keef released two mixtapes, The Glory Road and Bang. Both flew under local media’s radar but were gaining popularity among high school students in Southside Chicago. Keef’s lore grew with rumors that he’d died in a shootout with the Chicago Police Department. In reality, he was arrested and charged with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. He was sentenced to 30 days of home confinement at his grandmother’s apartment. Videos like “Bang” and “Everyday’s Halloween” quickly amassed millions of views, and Keef’s life seemingly changed overnight.
Within weeks of the WSHH video, Keef’s profile began to rise outside Chicago. Lil B remixed “Bang,” while Soulja Boy added a guest verse to another Keef song, “3Hunna.” Keef became the most polarizing artist in the city. Many felt his disposition, subject matter, and lack of dues paid were poor optics for the Chicago scene. But Keef’s expert maneuvering of the internet helped him leapfrog over a slew of hard-working artists who built buzz the old-fashioned way. It was clear the game and its rules of engagement had changed. That’s when my phone started ringing.
By March, Keef was receiving regular coverage from major music outlets like Pitchfork, XXL, and Complex. Chicago journalist David Drake even wrote a feature for Gawker, highlighting Keef’s rise to fame and how he balanced it while on house arrest. At the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Keef’s songs were inescapable, becoming the unofficial soundtrack for the week. When “I Don’t Like” dropped on March 11, Keef-mania hit a fever pitch. The Young Chop-produced track was an immediate hit, and the accompanying video (directed by DGainz) is now the stuff of legend — inspiring memes, gifs, and a slew of imitators. Keef’s Back From the Dead mixtape impacted the next day like a bomb. I started receiving daily phone calls, emails, and texts from A&Rs, label execs, managers, and industry power players who would grill me on any and everything Chief Keef. They were desperate to sign him or anyone affiliated with the Glory Boyz movement. One prominent music exec even offered me a joint venture with his label if I could help him ink Keef. Others promised trips, flights, and dinners — Keef was the new golden goose of the industry, and the suits would stop at nothing to have him.
I would tell the Keef suitors the same thing: Yes, Keef was by far the most popular of the bunch, but the Chicago scene was on fire from every angle. King Louie, Lil Reese, and Lil Durk were getting millions of YouTube views as pioneers of the newly-minted drill sound, a slower, more nihilistic, and menacing form of trap music many believe was started by a man named Pac Man from Dro City. At the same time, Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa (then a member of the band Kids These Days), and Rockie Fresh were building rabid fanbases and selling out local venues.
What happened next was gasoline on the flame. One day in the studio, Pusha T played Kanye West some of Keef’s videos and advised Ye to sign the young rapper and his entire crew. Shortly afterward, West spoke with Keef over the phone, and negotiations began. The two parties couldn’t match numbers for a formal partnership, but something else came from the call: West offered to remix “I Don’t Like.” On May 1, 2012, Fake Shore Drive was granted the official online premiere of West’s remix, which featured guest verses from Pusha T, Big Sean, and Jadakiss. The only caveat was that DJ Pharris got to play the song on Chicago radio first. He spun it on Power 92 for an hour.
The remix shot Keef into the stratosphere. Whatever label offers were on the table were null and void. The phone calls I received from labels got more frequent and desperate. Time was running out.
On the morning of June 16, I got a call from Keef’s manager and uncle, Rovan “Dro” Manuel, letting me know the deal was done: Keef had officially signed to Interscope Records. Until then, I was their go-to outlet for announcements, leaks, and videos; now that Interscope was involved, MTV got the exclusive. I understood. Keef was in the major leagues. The following day, news of his deal hit MTV and every other music outlet. It took a year for the details surrounding Keef’s deal to emerge, though — upwards of $6 million, including a publishing deal with Dr. Dre, a joint venture for Keef’s label Glory Boyz Entertainment, a motion picture deal, and Chief Keef headphones via Beats by Dre. In six months, Keef had gone from a relatively unknown teenager in Chicago to rookie of the year.
The next six months would be a rollercoaster. On December 18, 2012, Keef’s debut album Finally Rich was in stores and available on all online retailers. The album featured guests like Rick Ross, 50 Cent, French Montana, Jeezy, and Wiz Khalifa — adding a glossy sheen to the raw appeal that attracted fans to Keef’s earlier work. Finally Rich moved 50,000 copies in its first week, primarily seen as a disappointment for the $6 million man.
But sales don’t always tell the whole story. Keef’s popularity hadn’t slipped; it was still growing — the industry hadn’t yet caught up to listeners’ metrics. His fans weren’t buying albums anymore. They were streaming (which was still in its infancy in 2012). They were downloading mixtapes. They were playing their music on YouTube. Consumer trends had changed, and Keef was one of the youngest artists leading the charge. By today’s metrics, Finally Rich would’ve been a streaming monster. Keef wasn’t afforded that luxury, so the industry abandoned ship on him and the Chicago drill movement.
Labels used Finally Rich as a litmus test for drill. Had the album sold more units, they likely would have signed more Chicago artists. Instead, the industry ostracized drill as it gained momentum and began thriving on YouTube and message boards, mutating and gaining popularity in markets from London to New York City. Over the next decade, Pop Smoke and Fivio Foreign became big stars in New York’s burgeoning drill scene, which further spread to places like Ireland, Ghana, Australia, and the Netherlands.
Two years after signing his deal, Chief Keef parted ways with Interscope. Ten years later, drill is a global phenomenon, and Keef is widely recognized as an innovator in the movement. His latest release, 2021’s 4NEM, is some of the best work of his career, and last week he announced he’s partnered with BMG for his record label, 43B, whose first signing is Lil Gnar. In a press statement, Keef says he’s looking to pay it forward and “pass on my knowledge of the industry to artists who are shifting the culture so they can make it to the top.” Check in with him in 10 years.