At the moment, life is good for Lil Durk, nestled in a luxury box at Chicago’s United Center watching Bulls star Derrick Rose bank a three-pointer to give his team a buzzer-beating victory against the Cavaliers. Above the court, the local rapper and a team of friends, DJs and music industry associates greet the win as if it’s their own. Congratulatory smiles and back-pats fill the luxury box.
Durk’s debut album, Remember My Name, is within a month of its June 2nd release. “I just want to paint that picture of Chicago that everybody’s missing, and I just want to rap about it,” the 22-year-old tells Rolling Stone. “At the same time show ’em like this ain’t what I’m doing, but this is what I saw and this is what I seen growing up in Chicago. But this is what I’m on right now.”
Durk Banks grew up in the city’s Englewood neighborhood. In a 2014 documentary featuring Chicago rappers’ candid takes on navigating the city’s violence, he explained that with this start, there were two ways to go: basketball or the streets. At the age of 9 or 10, he began to follow the latter path, but in his late teens, Durk found a third route, turning to rap and dropping his debut mixtape, I’m a Hitta, in 2011.
A month later he was arrested for gun possession, and the experience confirmed his new sense of purpose. “What really broke it down was I had my son while I was locked up, so that really affected me,” says Durk. “I can’t really have this, knowing my father was locked up when I was small. So that really out of everything – through the fame, the money, everything – that really put the toll on me: ‘Oh yeah, I gotta change.'”
Durk now has three children and a sustained relationship with his own father, Dontay Banks, who made a similar turn himself. “He’s in jail,” says the rapper. “He had a life sentence but they took it off through a new law, so he’s blessed. He’s definitely positive now.”
After being released from prison, Durk put out a second tape (appropriately titled I’m Still a Hitter) and signed to Def Jam. The following year, he joined French Montana’s Coke Boys Records and scored an underground hit with “Dis Ain’t What You Want,” a middle finger to cops, snitches, media and all those trying to bring Durk down. Signed to the Streets, the mixtape on which it originally appeared, was included in Rolling Stone‘s round-up of the year’s 10 best.
Another possession charge led to 43 more days of jail time, but Durk’s subsequent community service connected him with local non-profit Cure Violence. Now he visits schools and stays in contact with kids, Facetiming when he’s out of town, as part of a campaign organized in tandem with Joakim Noah’s Arc Foundation. Cure Violence “interrupter” Cobe Williams, meanwhile, has become a mentor: “He be showing me different ways,” says Durk.
That’s not to say that he’s escaped the effects of the old ways, though: In May 2014, Durk’s cousin, rapper McArthur Swindle (also known as Nuski), was shot and killed while sitting in an SUV. In March of this year, his manager Uchenna Agina, who went by the nickname Chino, was murdered just hours after meeting with Noah to discuss his foundation’s anti-violence work.
“[Chino] inspired me and Nuski inspired me to keep going harder and do me,” says Durk. Around this time, he began to question of the sustainability of what he calls his earlier “hardcore rap”: “Even though the music’s still like what’s going on and being real and just keeping it 100, it’s still like I do positive things.”
Durk says he’s stopped beefing with other rappers, too, and that includes the rows he’s had with fellow Chicagoan Chief Keef. The pair even hit the studio together to lay down some tracks. “Me and him talked on the phone for like three hours, and man, we put that in the past,” he continues. “This is what it is, we on a whole other time right now, know what I’m saying? We gotta give the fans what they want. We have like three or four songs; we’re gonna have more.”
Where Twitter has been a breeding ground for fights, Durk used the medium to reach out to positive-minded rapper Logic, which resulted in their “Tryna Tryna” collab on Remember My Name. Upon first listen, the album sounds more melodic than the most of the Chicago drill scene he came up in: Lead single “Like Me” could work on radio or in clubs outside the rapper’s hometown.
Yet when the game ends and the entourage hits the town, Durk doesn’t join the party. Those present suggest that it would be too dangerous for him to go out, and some believe he should leave Chicago for his own safety. The rapper, however, still appears positive, and when we finish our chat at United Center, he’s happy to pose with fans who recognize him in the crowd.
“I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t rap right now,” he says. “I’d still be negative – I’m just glad where I’m at.”