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Paolo Fortades

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Tekashi 6ix9ine The Rise and Fall of a Hip-Hop Supervillain

He was SoundCloud rap’s most notorious star. But the same instincts that made him huge may put him in prison for years

One day in the summer of 2017, Daniel Hernandez, better known as the rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine, appeared outside a Brooklyn row house to shoot the video that would make him a star, and eventually ruin his life. Against the menacing strains of his viral hit “Gummo,” he and a crowd of men in red bandannas danced, waved guns and made cryptic symbols with their hands. Hernandez, clad in a green tracksuit, thrashed his rainbow hair and bared his multicolored teeth. At one point, he removed his own bandanna to show off a recent tattoo that would become his most identifying feature: the numerals “6” and “9” that covered half his forehead.

The tattoo was part of a personal rebrand that shocked Hernandez’s friends when he debuted it on Instagram. “I didn’t even know he had done that shit!” says Andrew “TrifeDrew” Green, who directed the “Gummo” video. “At that moment, I knew there was no turning back.” Just a few months before, 6ix9ine had still been Danny the deli clerk, with mostly unmarked skin, black hair and preposterous dreams of stardom. Then the dye job; then the tattoos; then the full Tekashi.

In his brief career, Tekashi 6ix9ine captured America’s attention with an escalating series of provocations and controversies. He became hip-hop’s troll prince, a master at sparking outrage and bottling it into a feverish popularity. It’s a playbook that’s been used before — 50 Cent, for example, dissed his way to rap’s throne in the early 2000s — but the speed at which 6ix9ine found himself with an audience of millions could only have happened in the smartphone era. You didn’t have to like him; you just had to have an opinion. “He is the Donald Trump of the music industry,” Elliot Grainge, the CEO of Tekashi’s label, 10K Projects, told me last summer. “We look at the data — 80 percent of the comments are hate. But if we showed you the analytics on who writes the hate comments, they’re the ones who go to the shows and buy the T-shirts!”

The “Gummo” video launched Hernandez on three parallel trajectories — one that made him famous; one that made him notorious; and one that may end his career. “Gummo,” powered by the bizarre, unforgettable 6ix9ine image, was a viral sensation that went platinum in just a few months. That surge in popularity would lead to the uncovering of Hernandez’s pre-fame life, including a guilty plea for child-sex charges, a case that would define Hernandez in the public eye. But it was his introduction to Kifano Jordan, a.k.a. “Shotti,”  that would be the most consequential part of that summer day in Brooklyn. Shotti was allegedly a member of the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods, a subset of the violent prison gang founded at New York’s Rikers Island jail in 1993. He produced the crowd of menacing young men in the video, and in time would become Tekashi’s unofficial manager. Later, authorities allege, he would threaten Tekashi’s life.

People who knew Hernandez well agree that, before he met Shotti, he hadn’t been involved in gang life at all. But just more than 12 months after that video shoot in Brooklyn, Hernandez would be in a jail cell facing 32 years to life on charges that included armed robbery and attempted murder.

***

Rapper Daniel Hernandez, who is also known as 6ix9ine, after pleading guilty in State Supreme Court in Manhattan to using a minor in a sexual performance, in New York, Oct. 26, 2018. A year ago, the rapper seemed on a path to hip-hop stardom. Now he is under indictment. (Jefferson Siegel/The New York Times)

69 Problems: In a Manhattan courtroom on October 26th, 2018, for a plea violation. Tekashi would avoid incarceration, but that evening, at a dinner celebrating the judge’s decision, a gun battle would break out between Shotti’s crew and his label CEO Elliot Grainge’s security team. And within a month, Teakashi would find himself in a much bigger trouble. Photo credit: Jefferson Siegel/The New York Times/Redux

His friends all called him Danny. To them, he wasn’t Tekashi or 6ix9ine, even after he put 14 songs on the Billboard chart and started hanging out with Kanye West. He was Danny Hernandez, from Locust Avenue, in Bushwick, who worked the counter at the Stay Fresh Grill and Deli, who picked fights on Instagram, and who lived in a crowded two-bedroom apartment in a derelict tenement. “His mom’s house . . . that was, like, him, his mom, his brother [his brother’s] girlfriend, his girlfriend and his kid,” says Andrew, who visited him often.

Danny liked to needle people endlessly. Many of his closest friends had once been enemies; many of his enemies were once his closest friends. Almost always, a first interaction with him was negative. He’d find someone on social media, leave nasty comments, and dare them to fight him. Then, when they ran into him in person, he’d disarm them with kindness. He wasn’t threatening at all in real life — around five feet six and 130 pounds, with a boyish demeanor and an impudent smile. Danny would quash the internet beef, explain that it was all a misunderstanding, and maybe even apologize. Then: lifelong friends.

Danny’s biological father had abandoned the family when Danny was an infant. His mother, who was born in Mexico, told him that his adoptive Puerto Rican father was actually his biological dad, according to a radio interview Danny gave on The Angie Martinez Show. Danny eventually learned the truth about his stepfather, but it didn’t affect their relationship and Danny continued to describe himself as “half Puerto Rican, half Mexican.” They were close, and Danny referred to him, even afterward, as his “real” father.

In early 2010, when Danny was 13, his adoptive father was shot and killed outside their apartment, on a busy street, in the middle of the day. He’d taken a trip to the grocery store and invited Danny along, but Danny decided to stay home. The crime was never solved.

Not long after, Danny began acting out, and was expelled from the eighth grade. His family struggled financially. Along with his older brother, he worked odd jobs in Bushwick, but was repeatedly sacked. He never attended high school, not even for a day.

Last August, while reporting a story about Grainge, Danny’s label boss, I had a five-minute conversation with Danny via FaceTime. At that time, his career looked bright, and he told me with confidence that he would soon be the number-one rapper in the world. But when I asked him about his difficult teenage years, he told me something odd: “For two months, I didn’t say nothing to no one,” he said. “Not a word.”

In 2015, Danny’s girlfriend got pregnant. Having lost two fathers himself, Danny was determined to support his child. But living in an apartment with five other people, with no education and a minimum-wage job, he had few economic prospects. He needed to make a lot of money, quickly. He decided to become a rapper.

Danny had not previously shown much interest in rap music, and he was not a natural talent, but he had the attitude nailed. He’d seen the response to his social media provocations, and he sensed that this could be leveraged to build a larger audience. If he was not the most technically gifted of performers, when it came to trolling, he was Mozart.

But Danny was also a Christian, a true believer, as his mother had raised him, and during the darkest parts of his life, he would turn to religion for help. Having decided that music was the way forward, he appealed for divine assistance. As his career was just starting, he told me, he would walk the grimy streets of Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant, muttering to himself in supplication — “Please, God, change my life. Please, God, make me famous.”

***

Much of what I know about Danny comes from Andrew “TrifeDrew” Green, one of Danny’s closest friends and most important collaborators. Andrew, a former skateboarder, is lanky, athletic and handsome, with a gentle sense of irony and a nonchalant demeanor. He and Danny met on Instagram in the early 2010s. Danny had trolled Andrew, leaving nasty comments on a mutual friend’s feed. The two got into it, trading barbs online, which escalated quickly into threats. “I actually pulled up on him, to see if he wanted to thump,” Andrew tells me. “He didn’t show.”

Two weeks later, they reconnected and Danny made peace. Andrew realized that the taunting was a kind of immature courtship, and that Danny admired Andrew’s videos and wanted to work with him. “It was just to get my attention,” Andrew says. “He was actually just a little smartass. Just funny, goofy, joking and laughing.”

Danny explained his vision to Andrew. His rap handle was Tekashi69. The “Tekashi” part was inspired by Japanese anime, of which Danny was a big fan. Six-nine was more mysterious — it was the sex number, obviously, but in its interlocking yin-yang digits, Danny had found something deeper that he never fully explained. He was obsessed with the number and, even before the tattoos, was wearing outlandish sports jerseys with the numerals emblazoned on the back, and the words ASSHOLE and STD’S in the fields for the player’s name.

One of Danny’s first songs as Tekashi69, titled “69,” released in 2014. Musically, it was half-decent — an aggro-trap hybrid as effective as it was anonymous. The video featured graphic clips of pornographic hentai, a suite of Lamborghinis, and Danny appearing to get a blow job while Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” played in the background. Danny can be seen receiving one of his first tattoos: a bone font on his inner forearm that read SCUM.

S.C.U.M. was an acronym — Society Can’t Understand Me — the tag line of S.C.U.M. Gang, a New York rap collective that Danny associated with. (Standout S.C.U.M. Gang rapper Zillakami shot videos of friends appearing to smoke angel dust.) Andrew, who was angling to be Danny’s videographer, wasn’t overly excited by the “69” video, which was shocking but visually incoherent. He was more impressed that Danny, who’d never had more than a few dollars to his name, managed to finagle the Lamborghinis.

The “69” video didn’t bring the kind of major label attention Danny was hoping for, but it didn’t stifle his commitment, either. After it was shot, he got a series of more provocative tattoos: dozens of small “69”s, spaced at regular intervals, like leopard spots, up the lengths of both his arms.

“Wizard” Lee Weinberg is an affable dude from Long Island who runs a ramshackle independent recording studio in Lower Manhattan. For basement rates, he’ll record, mix and master your album, and for a long time, he was S.C.U.M. Gang’s go-to engineer. He was also one of Danny’s “Day Ones,” meaning he knew Danny before the Tekashi identity took over. From the start, Wizard was responsible for smoothing out the rougher edges in Danny’s sound. Andrew, too, became a crucial contributor — a talented rapper with his own career who was now co-writing Danny’s songs.

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 13: (L-R) Tr3way, 6ix9ine, and Jim Jones backstage at PlayStation Theater on August 13, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage)

The Unofficial Manager: Tekashi with Kifano Jordan, better known as “Shotti,” who is allegedly a made member of the Nine Trey Bloods, a prison gang. He would become a key figure in Tekashi’s life. Photo credit: Johnny Nunez/WireImage

By the start of 2015, Danny, then 18, was evolving into a competent, commercially viable recording artist. But then he did something horrible. In February, he traveled with a rapper named Taquan Anderson to a trap house in Harlem to shoot footage for a new video. Instead, the two ended up making a series of sex tapes, one showing a nude young girl lying across their laps; another showing her fellating Taquan while Danny stood behind her, making thrusting motions and smacking her on the buttocks. The video was posted to Instagram, and Danny was tagged in it. He then reposted it to his own account.

Soon, Danny found himself talking to Detective Maureen Sheehan of the NYPD Special Victims Squad. Danny admitted it was him in the video and that he’d posted it to social media. She informed him that the girl was 13 years old; her mother had seen the video and reported it to the police. Danny was arrested, and by his account, his bail was set at $100,000 — a sum he could never hope to afford — and he spent the next few months in Rikers Island jail.

The prosecutor was threatening years in prison, but Danny’s lawyer from the Legal Aid Society negotiated a deal. It wasn’t bad, as deals go: In exchange for pleading guilty to a felony count of “use of a child in a sexual performance,” Danny was conditionally released on one year’s probation, and temporarily spared the sex-offender registry. He was given a series of requirements to meet: obtain his GED, avoid getting arrested, write the girl and her family a letter of apology, complete 300 hours of community service, and attend outpatient mental-health treatment. If he did all of this, he would avoid jail time and stay off the registry permanently.

In the years following the incident, Danny made a variety of lame excuses. He claimed that he was only 17 at the time of the incident (he wasn’t). He claimed that he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time (untrue). He said that he’d just met the girl and the other man in the video (irrelevant), and he claimed the girl had told him she was 19 (please). In his more self-pitying moments, he would present himself as the victim in the situation, making comparisons to Meek Mill, the rapper who had spent 10 years on probation — and served multiple jail sentences — stemming from one drug charge.

It’s difficult to imagine what restitution would have looked like in this case, but it’s fair to say Danny never paid it. Instead, he buried the incident and focused on his career. But he’d left a loose end. Rumors began to swirl that Zillakami, his friend from S.C.U.M. Gang, had paid a portion of his bail — up to the full $100,000, though Andrew says it was more like two or three grand. A rift opened between the two. According to Wizard, Zillakami accused Danny of stealing the money, and Danny began taunting Zillakami in Instagram Stories and interviews. “If that’s true and you bailed me out,” he said in an interview, “you’s a bitch, because who bails out a rapist?” One day, representatives from S.C.U.M. Gang approached Wizard and delivered an ultimatum: Choose between working with us or working with Danny.

Wizard chose Danny. He had heard rumors about the sex tapes, but he didn’t feel that Danny was actually a pedophile. Also, the sessions he’d hosted with Danny and Andrew had a sensational musical energy he hadn’t experienced before. “I went with my gut,” Wizard tells me. “I see a lot of talented musicians, but his gift for marketing, the Tekashi69 identity . . . I’d never seen anything like it. I thought Danny was going to be a star.” His decision — to ignore Danny’s misdeeds in favor of his obvious charisma — was one many in the music industry would repeat in the following years.

***

Danny took a lot of crazy risks, and he pushed those around him to do the same. Sometimes, he and Andrew would come up with enough money for one-way tickets to California, where they were featured on underground tracks. “We’d be hustling, scraping up money to shoot a video in L.A. or some shit,” Andrew says. “We would only have money for one-way flights, and maybe enough to buy two bags of ramen noodles when we got there.” Earning $500 or so a feature, they always managed to make it home.

By 2017, Danny was attracting interest from established labels, as SoundCloud rap emerged from underground. Several breakout stars signed major deals around that time, including XXXTentacion, Lil Pump and Trippie Redd. Danny knew many of these artists, and producers began to use his aggressive energy to throw some flair on otherwise dull tracks.

Among the first to see Danny’s potential was Elliot Grainge, then 23, the CEO of 10K Projects, the independent label that had signed Trippie Redd. Grainge — tall, polite, English — hailed from a royal family of music management. His father, Lucian Grainge, the CEO of Universal Music Group, was the industry’s most powerful man. His uncle Nigel Grainge had signed Sinéad O’Connor to her first record deal; his cousin Nick Shymansky discovered Amy Winehouse. Elliot, looking to make his own name in the ancient family trade, was targeting generation SoundCloud. When I asked Elliot his thoughts about the genre, his eyes and nostrils flared: “This is punk rock.”

Early in 2017, Trippie invited Danny to California to feature in a song called “Poles1469.” The song eventually went gold, and a bidding war erupted to sign 6ix9ine, one in which Grainge couldn’t financially compete. What he could offer instead was total creative control. After several rounds of negotiations, Danny signed with 10K, forgoing larger advances from Warner Bros. and Sony.

Danny got to work immediately, returning to Wizard’s grimy studio with Andrew and several hundred beats from various producers. One of these was the work of Pi’erre Bourne, most famous for producing Playboi Carti’s “Magnolia.” Bourne’s new beat was originally meant for Trippie; Danny would claim Trippie had given it to him as a gift, though Trippie would later claim it was stolen. Whatever the case, it was a scorcher that set a whining, high-pitched minor-key melody over insistent, driving hand claps.

Danny turned it into “Gummo,” his breakout hit. The lyrics, co-written with Andrew, were a generic endorsement of the thrills of armed robbery, but Danny’s angry vocals, barked at maximum volume into Wizard’s distortion filters, then layered over Bourne’s superbly chilling beat, gave the song a unique flavor of menace. Andrew says that the team hadn’t intended to record such a threatening anthem, but the song’s tone had emerged organically from the studio process. “We worked on ‘Gummo’ for almost four months,” he says. “We tried a bunch of different flows, a bunch of cadences. The label didn’t believe in it, but we just knew when we heard it.”

Grainge, in L.A., tried to shelve “Gummo,” arguing that the gangbanger image wasn’t right for Tekashi, who, in his mind, had the potential to be something more like the court jester of pop. But Danny, extending the creative-control clause in his contract, overruled him — this was his image, he insisted, and this was his sound. Grainge was forced to acquiesce. Now all that remained was to shoot the video.

***

Around the time “Gummo” was released, Trippie Redd and 6ix9ine turned on each other. I heard competing explanations for the rift — that Trippie envied Danny’s success; that Danny had stolen the beat for “Gummo”; that there was a dispute about a girl. Whatever the reason, Trippie soon found Danny’s weak spot and exposed him. Zillakami, possibly still angry about the bail money, posted about the underage-sex-tape indictment, to which Trippie reportedly alerted his millions of followers in a now-deleted video.

The 6ix9ine identity, previously just provocative, was now radioactive. “Gummo” was released the same month the #MeToo movement emerged, and after decades of looking the other way, nobody, anywhere, was now willing to normalize a convicted underage sex abuser. He struggled to get radio airplay and TV appearances. Even in the historically more permissive world of music management, nobody wanted to work with Danny. For the remainder of Danny’s brief career, his sole lifeline to the legitimate recording industry was Grainge. “I didn’t know about the charges, but I don’t regret signing him,” Grainge tells me. To Grainge, 6ix9ine had promise. “The definition of a star is when someone walks in the room and they kind of brighten up the room. It’s an energy they give off, that I’m very sensitive towards. He had that.”

And yet the doxxing of Danny’s child-sex case wasn’t the worst thing to result from the “Gummo” video shoot. The worst thing, according to multiple sources, was the older man he met on the set that day. Kifano Jordan, 36, was better known as “Shotti.” He had a friendly disposition — “a real stand-up guy,” says a friend of Danny’s, without irony — but he was also allegedly a made member of the Nine Trey Bloods with a record of arrests for drug charges.

At the time “Gummo” was released, Danny had a manager, whom he’d hired through an associate of XXXTentacion. But in early 2018, Danny fired him, leaving himself in a vulnerable position: Although he was a highly successful recording artist, the blacklist prevented him from obtaining competent professional representation. In February 2018, Danny instead made Shotti his unofficial manager.

Danny’s associates question exactly how much managing Shotti actually did. “He wasn’t no manager,” Andrew tells me, then blows a raspberry. Grainge agrees: “That’s not his manager. That’s his friend.” Shotti could not be reached for this story, but several people tell me he thinks of himself as a contemporary Suge Knight. Soon, Danny adopted a strident gangbanger image. He began yelling “Treyway” in Instagram posts — a nickname for Shotti’s business platform, but also likely a reference to the Nine Trey nation. His music began to promote gang politics enthusiastically, especially “Blood Walk,” a remix of Rich the Kid’s “Plug Walk” that borrowed from Snoop Dogg: “I keep a red flag, hanging out my backside/Only on the right side/Yeah, that’s the Blood side.”

This image provided by the U.S. Attorney's Office is said by authorities to show a violent robbery that the rapper 6ix9ine-- whose real name is Daniel Hernandez-- participated in, near Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan.

Instagram-Ready: A surveillance-video still of a robbery near Times Square in April. Prosecutors allege that Shotti was present and Tekashi was filming the robbery from a car parked outside. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Attorney’s Office

For his friends, it was an inexplicable turn. The gangster image in his previous videos was a front, as fake as pro wrestling. In reality, he was a struggling teenage dad who had earned his money slicing ham at the Stay Fresh Grill. The distinction, though — that Danny’s association with the Nine Trey Bloods was all an act to sell records — would quickly become murkier, and eventually beside the point at all.

***

After “Gummo,” Danny put 13 more songs on the charts. His songs have been streamed more than 2.6 billion times, according to the music analytics company BuzzAngle. He’s garnered more than 15 million followers on Instagram, and was at one point in the service’s top 100 users. The popular consensus was summarized in a Youtube comment: “This shit does bang but it’s lowering my IQ.” As his career progressed, his visual iconography became cartoon shorthand for an emerging demographic. On 4chan, a crudely drawn image quartered millennials into distinct generations: “Boomers” (post-30), “Bloomers” (late 20s), “Doomers” (early 20s) and teenage “Zoomers,” also known as Generation Z. The last had rainbow hair and a forehead tattoo of a “69.” Online, 6ix9ine was the face of a generation.

In interviews, Danny suggested that he didn’t have to try very hard to make a hit and downplayed his technical rapping ability. “I didn’t put no effort into that shit,” he told radio host Angie Martinez following the release of “Fefe,” his collaboration with Nicki Minaj that hit Number Three. Grainge was eager to corroborate the story. “He’s been to the recording studio maybe 15 times, never for more than an hour or so,” Grainge says. “And he’s got 15 hits!”

But Wizard tells me the rapper was actually a studio perfectionist who agonized over every bar. Andrew says something similar: Together, he and Danny would lay down a series of lyrical ideas, then spend hours obsessively line-editing them. Thematically, the material never strayed far from the gangster archetype, but they weren’t looking for range; they were looking for hooks. “He focuses on every bar, and he can see if something’s fire or trash,” Wizard says. “If it’s trash, he’ll focus on it. His real talent . . . basically, it’s evaluating whether things are trash or fire.”

Danny’s songs were simple, but they were catchy, and short, too, ending just before the listener might get bored. In the months following “Gummo,” Danny showed surprising versatility, switching from belligerent screaming to a hoarse, emotional whisper to AutoTuned Spanish-language pop. The disconnect between his voicing, the lyrics and the production created a sense of internal conflict, and at his best, Danny pulled off one of the hardest tricks in songcraft: He made the listener feel multiple emotions at once.

Throughout 2017, as his musicianship was improving, Danny doubled down on his already daring social media strategy. This meant tattoos, lots of them: spiderwebs on his jaw, enormous “69”s on his neck, chest and stomach, and in a Gothic touch, the torture-porn icon Jigsaw, from the Saw franchise, on his right cheek. (Naturally, the face on his face had its own “69” tattoo.) It also meant beef, tons and tons of beef, with anyone and everyone he could find, including 50 Cent, Chief Keef, YG, Ludacris, Casanova and the Game.

Violence began to plague 6ix9ine’s public appearances, especially after he linked up with Shotti and his entourage. There was video of gunfire outside a nightclub in Minnesota, following a chaotic appearance where someone threw an ice bucket at the rapper. There was a video of a brawl in the outdoor loading zone at LAX, where a fistfight appearing to involve 6ix9ine spilled out onto a busy street. And there was reportedly gunfire at a video shoot in Beverly Hills for a song featuring 6ix9ine, Minaj and Kanye West. Minaj’s dressing room was reportedly hit by a bullet from an unknown assailant before she arrived. It was unclear whether Danny was directly involved in these incidents, but his constant incitements on Instagram created a perpetually volatile situation. Andrew began to worry about his friend. “Almost every time I was around him, I was like, ‘You don’t gotta do this gang-sta shit, bro,’ ” he says. “He has rainbow hair, for God’s sake! He could’ve just been a star.”

Danny often posted obnoxious Instagram content where he displayed his expensive jewelry, including a diamond-encrusted necklace of the Jigsaw marionette, which, he claimed, had cost him $300,000. “Someone please come snatch my chain so my project could sell more,” he wrote in one caption. In July 2018, he was kidnapped at gunpoint, beaten and robbed. In his recounting to Angie Martinez, he suggested the incident had been an inside job: His car had been rammed from behind, an assailant drew a gun, then forced him into another vehicle. He was then driven to his apartment — his captors already knew where it was — where he was forced to wait in the back seat while the thieves raided his home for jewels, terrorizing his girlfriend and child. Danny says he managed to escape by jumping out of the moving car.

Grainge attempted to persuade Danny to move to Los Angeles, suggesting he rent a house in a place like Calabasas, where he could be neighbors with Kim Kardashian and Drake. “I don’t think he can be safe in New York City,” Grainge told me in August. “Not in Bushwick.” Danny, loyal to his “Day Ones,” turned him down.

In the spring and summer of 2018, Danny was arrested three times, first for driving with a suspended license, then for assaulting a police officer, then in connection with an assault at a mall in Houston, where he’d allegedly choked a 16-year-old who’d taken his picture. The arrests violated the terms of the plea deal in his sex-tape case; he had also repeatedly failed his GED exam. In October, Danny made a request for clemency at his sentencing hearing. In the courtroom was Grainge; so, too, were members of Shotti’s entourage, dressed in subtle shades of red.

The prosecutor asked for at least a year in prison.

The judge spared him incarceration, instead issuing four years probation on the condition he not get arrested again or associate with known gang members. To celebrate, Grainge took Danny out to dinner at Philippe, a narrow, swanky Chinese restaurant in midtown Manhattan, whose private dining rooms often host New York’s athletic and musical celebrities. Shotti and his crew attempted to attend, but were denied entrance by Grainge’s security. According to his lawyer, Danny bailed on the scene.

An argument broke out between Shotti, with his squad of thugs, and 6ix9ine’s princeling label boss, with his security detail of retired cops. A member of Shotti’s crew bashed someone in the head with a chair. A security guard working for Grainge pulled out a gun and shot one of his assailants in the stomach. It was a custody battle for rap’s problem child.

***

In November, three weeks after the fracas at Philippe, Danny announced on Instagram that he was firing his entire management team, meaning Shotti and his entourage, although he never mentioned them by name. In a radio interview, he attributed the firings to financial mismanagement. His lawyer explained it to me this way: “He made the decision [to get out] after the judge granted him a second chance. The Phillipe incident . . . he was given back the best days of his life, and he took that second chance.” By that point, the feds had already taken an interest in Danny; a search of his residence in September had retrieved an illegal firearm and a backpack that had been reported stolen by the victim of an armed robbery.

The escalating situation put Danny at risk; one does not simply exit gang life with an Instagram post. Danny’s collaborators got nervous. Wizard, assembling the final cut of 6ix9ine’s debut album, began locking himself in the studio. Andrew, Danny’s oldest and closest collaborator, distanced himself from the scene and focused on launching his own career.

Two days after the announcement, Danny was approached by the FBI, who told him that his life was in danger. It turned out that Shotti was the target of an open federal investigation and that, for the past few weeks, law enforcement had wiretapped the phones of his crew. They’d been hearing chatter from gang members suggesting that a hit had been authorized on Danny’s life — that he was in line to be “super–violated.” According to a leaked transcript of the wiretap, Mel Murda, one of Shotti’s associates, was overheard suggesting that Shotti “don’t got nothing to lose no more.” The FBI offered Danny its protection. He declined.

An indictment soon followed: a task force consisting of the ATF, Homeland Security and the NYPD had been building a RICO case against Shotti and his crew for months. (RICO refers to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a federal law used to prosecute acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization.) Shotti and four members of his crew were arrested — as was Daniel Hernandez. The arrests, according to a statement from U.S. Attorney Michael Longyear, were prompted by a fear that Shotti and his crew would attempt to attack Danny in a public place, and the authorities would be unable to contain the situation.

Norway, Oslo - Juni 27, 2018. The American rapper and lyricist 6ix9ine performs a live concert at Sentrum Scene in Oslo. (Photo by: Gonzales Photo/Jarle H. Moe/PYMCA/Avalon/UIG via Getty Images)

Powder Keg: Violence began to plague 6ix9ine’s appearances especially after he linked up with Shotti. Photo credit: Gonzales Photo/Jarle H. Moe/PYMCA/Avalon/UIG via Getty Images

Famous rappers have been charged with serious felonies in the past, but the indictment brought against Danny and his crew has no precedent in the history of hip-hop. It alleged an extraordinary range of gang activity, including drug dealing, firearms charges, armed robbery and two attempted murders. There was the April incident at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center where, according to the indictment, Danny and his crew were involved in a dust-up with rival rapper Casanova. A member of Shotti’s crew fired a shot — no one was hit — and was later arrested. There was the July shooting in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where, the indictment alleged, Danny and his crew planned a hit on a disrespectful street rival. (The shooter missed, hitting a bystander.) There was the armed robbery in April near Times Square; the U.S. Attorney’s office claimed that a group of Nine Treys were the perpetrators and Danny was outside, filming it all.

At his arraignment on November 19th, Danny appeared disheveled before the judge. His hearing was directly after Shotti and the other alleged Nine Treys’, even though they were being tried together. Danny was denied bail, despite offering to surrender his passport and to pay more than $1 million in bail. The judge frequently asked the prosecutors how they knew Danny had been present at shootings, like the one at the Barclays Center. The answer was often simple: Danny had posted about it on Instagram.

Danny was brought to a federal jail in Brooklyn, according to his lawyer. There, his life was openly threatened by gang members. The guards at the prison immediately transferred him to a private facility in Queens. On November 26th, he was denied bail; he remains imprisoned today. The mandatory-minimum sentencing for the racketeering charges he faces is 32 years.

In mid-December, I meet with Danny’s criminal–defense attorney, Lance Lazzaro, who emphasizes to me that, despite the prison rumors, Danny was not cooperating with authorities, and under no circumstances would he do so. Lazzaro also tells me Danny was not, and had never been, a member of the Nine Trey Bloods, that the charges against him were based on “hearsay,” and that he was willing to fight the racketeering charge all the way to trial. “Danny liked to present the image of being a gangster to sell his music,” he says. “But my client is not a gangster.”

But when I ask Lazzaro if Danny might be willing to plead guilty to a lesser charge — say, armed robbery — he said it would depend on the charge and the terms. Shortly after our meeting, TMZ obtained surveillance footage of an April robbery that appears to show Shotti exiting an SUV, and a short Hispanic man with rainbow hair emerging shortly afterward. This robbery, authorities claim, was also captured on a separate video shot on Danny’s phone, then sent to one of his friends, who posted it to social media.

To some observers, Danny’s arrest wasn’t a surprise. “All the politics, all the beef, it was like… You can’t just be speeding down the highway without expecting to crash,” Andrew says.

But why would he feel the need to behave this way, I ask Andrew. Why on Earth would a platinum-selling recording artist stick up some kid on the street for a backpack?

“The internet,” Andrew says.

***

On November 27th, nine days after his arrest, 6ix9ine’s first official album, Dummy Boy, was released online. It debuted at Number Two but was a commercial disappointment to anyone invested in Tekashi. The critics were not kind.

With the exception of a couple of unreleased tracks on Wizard’s desktop, this likely brings to an end the brief, bizarre and shocking career of Tekashi 6ix9ine. He faces six separate charges, and federal prison terms don’t offer the possibility of parole. Even if he were to cooperate, it’s not like he could enter witness protection — not with that face. Anything less than a decade inside seems improbable. Hernandez still plans on releasing music from jail, according to a recent report from TMZ. His lawyer was unavailable to comment on whether that’s true, or the potential method for recording new music.

All of this — his supercharged rise from his corroded Brooklyn neighborhood, his extended tangle with the legal system and his eventual arrest by federal agents — took just more than a year, an internet-fueled ride that went off the rails almost as quickly as it began.

6ix9ine’s fall coincides with the crashing of the entire SoundCloud rap wave: XXXTentacion has been murdered; Lil Peep is dead of a drug overdose; Lil Xan recently went to rehab. Danny was the movement’s defining face. His behavior was unforgivable, but his instincts as an influencer were immaculate, and that only made his critics hate him more, extending the cycle of popularity for as long as it could be sustained.

Instagram was Danny’s MTV, and trap music was his grunge, but the ironic, media-savvy distance previous generations had maintained between themselves and their entertainment had for him collapsed. He was a confused child of the internet who’d pierced the realm of stardom, but failed to understand where the theatrics were supposed to end.

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