A Chief Keef soundcheck is sort of a funny idea. For most performers, taking a half-hour or so before doors open to run through songs with the sound technician is vital to their performance later that night. Set lists get established, mix levels get preset, and artists get a feel for the stage at a venue they may be performing in for the first time. But as Keef’s DJ blared his tracks late Monday afternoon at New York’s S.O.B’s nightclub, it became clear there wasn’t really much to rehearse.
“Is it too loud?” Keef asked from behind white shades. He bopped around the stage, half-interested in the routine, shouting along with his viral catchphrases whenever he felt like it. Two kids with HD cameras filmed his every move, and his manager fretted over a radio show appearance and hair appointment that soundcheck time was cutting into. “It’s fine,” the soundman responded, before offering some advice about projection that Keef may or may not have heard.
Chief Keef has exploded onto the rap scene as many young artists have over the past two years: with an early viral video, a co-sign from a major artist and extensive coverage on tastemaker music blogs. But the 17-year-old’s story boasts a sinister edge that has become rarer since traditional gangsta rap has waned in popularity. As detailed in a Gawker piece that introduced him to most, in late 2011, the young rapper enjoyed a feverish buzz in his native Chicago after releasing the video for his first single, “Bang,” a street-anthem built on a grinding Lex Luger-esque instrumental that celebrated gun violence in a city riddled with bullets. That December, Keef was arrested for allegedly pointing a gun at a police officer.
Like a modern-day Jimmy Cliff in “The Harder They Come,” Keef’s legend grew throughout Chicago high schools as he was placed on house arrest, and “Bang” continued to rack up spins. He used his time in exile to fire out more material, and soon the blogosphere got a taste for Keef’s high energy and repetitive hooks. Each upload from the rapper became bigger than the last, and when Kanye West commissioned a remix to his most pronounced hit “I Don’t Like” this spring, the teenager went from web sensation to undeniable mainstream rap presence. A deal with Interscope Records soon followed, and T.I. told MTV that Chief Keef was giving voice to a population of youth of America. But unlike Tip, Keef doesn’t have very much to say.
During a backstage chat with Rolling Stone before his performance, Keef mostly offered half-mumbled, one-word responses. He was either very nervous or very apathetic, and undoubtedly very high (he did reveal that his line of Beats by Dre headphones would in fact be released, under the name “Beats by Sosa”). Onstage, flanked by dozens of team members, he raced through less than 20 minutes of material after a packed crowd had waited over two hours for his set – the most he offered between songs was, “Shout out to all my ladies.” Still, Keef is much less about any one song or performance than he is about a tone and environment, and the crowd had no problem thrashing along to the writhing synths and disjointed half-rhymes. He’s hip-hop’s confrontational nihilism stripped to its very barest, and when he launched into “I Don’t Like,” which simply catalogues the things he doesn’t like – “bitch n***as,” “snitch n***as,” “fuck niggas” – the entire room chanted along. “We’ve had a lot of people touch this S.O.B.’s stage,” the host yelled to the crowd after the performance. “Kanye came through, and he ain’t never did no shit like that!” Whether it was a compliment or not wasn’t clear. Chief Keef had already left.